Milius, shot by directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, is one of the few documentaries with an ending that must not be spoiled. While other nonfiction films have no room for a climactic twist, this documentary, a look into the life of writer-director John Milius, surprises until the end and stirs emotion throughout its second half.
The documentary spins the story of the larger-than-life Milius, weaving both Hollywood apocrypha and hard facts into its story. Milius, who directed Red Dawn and wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, is a USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate. The libertarian and surfer enjoyed fame and endured infamy in Hollywood, ultimately leading to him leaving the industry in the late ’80s. Milius had close relationships with classmate George Lucas, Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. All of the cinematic legends offer interviews, turning this film into both a retrospective of Milius’ life and a time capsule for 1970s Hollywood.
The film presents Milius both as the wild man who wanted “girls, gold and guns,” (as he reveals in an interview) and as the romantic intellectual who wanted to recreate, in his words, the “Homeric” on the silver screen. While the first 40 minutes delve into documentary clichés, presenting sentimental home videos and the story of Milius’ time in the Vietnam War, the film picks up when exploring the latter, self-destructive part of his career.
What distinguishes this film from a fluff piece is its candid look at Milius’ persona. In an insightful interview, Lucas says that during their time at USC, Milius’ act was just an act, but Lucas feared that Milius’ comic book persona and personality became indistinguishable. Uncovering the facts of Milius’ life becomes its own adventure, and viewers are often thrust into the thicket of mystery. For instance, Lucas will begin a wild tale about Milius, Spielberg will continue and corroborate it and then Coppola will say it never happened and that the entire story was “written by Milius” to benefit his persona. These contradictions peel away the various layers of Milius’ person to reveal the fascinating, multifaceted writer-director.
To portray Milius’ self-destruction at the hands of his persona, the film must first reaffirm Milius’ legacy. The first 40 minutes exist to reclaim Milius’ spot next to major names such as Robert Zemeckis and Martin Scorsese. During that era, Milius was seen as their equal, but his wild antics have seemingly erased his name from history. The first half, while slow, presents Milius as he is — a genius, capable of rewriting Jaws over the phone and adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Out of necessity, the first 40 minutes feel like fluff in order to present the legend, but they do place Milius back into filmic canon.
By rediscovering Milius, the film also rediscovers the ’70s. Using photos from Coppola’s parties and Lucas’ student films, Milius makes the ’70s feel tangible.
This rediscovery of the ’70s, however, has its drawbacks. Many of those interviewed exhibit the sexism of the era. A particularly problematic line jokes that Milius didn’t write films “for p—ies or women.” While shocking, this candor makes for both a critique of Milius and of the era in which he worked, allowing the viewer to see a bygone era for what it was.
Still, by injecting Milius’ sense of humor into the film, it occasionally glorifies the sexism that Milius casually jokes about. It walks the line between legitimizing Milius’ career and legitimizing his antics, and while the film ultimately critiques him, some moments err on the wrong side.
But what elevates Milius from an interesting rediscovery to a perfect documentary is its ending. The final sequence, marked by intense pathos, has a narrative quality.
Milius had a stroke in 2010. The final scenes include Milius the wordsmith re-learning language after his stroke. This ending provides a climactic edge to the movie, developing a narrative out of a mostly essayistic form. Thus the critique of Milius becomes stronger; even with his deteriorated condition, the filmmakers do not back down from presenting the truth.
When the filmmakers contacted Milius about making the film, he had only one rule: “Tell the truth.” By doing so, an honest film, almost as brilliant as Milius himself, manages to emerge.