Scattered Thoughts About Milius

milius-titles John Milius was an interesting guy, and there's no denying his talent (dude wrote Apocalypse Now, which by itself is a lifetime achievement) or his place among his contemporaries (Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, etc.). But much of the documentary Milius has a breezy, by-the-numbers approach to biography, with talking heads and film clips laid out pretty much in chronological order, even as interviewees' stories turn again and again to the ups and downs of working with Milius: he was temperamental, contrary, reactionary, erratic, gifted, passionate, stubborn, dedicated, and so on. In other words, the film's structure and tone are often at odds with its subject. Co-directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson — who've mostly worked as producers and directors for Kevin Smith projects — are clearly enamored of Milius, but their execution also tries to hide him away. Milius' current medical condition (he had a stroke and is slowly working to regain his speaking abilities) is a matter of public record, but it's hidden away until the end of the film and delivered almost like a gut-punch, played both for tragedy (gifted raconteur laid low and silent) and obstacle to overcome (Milius was in pre-production on a film about Genghis Khan when he suffered his stroke). It's only in these final minutes that the film deepens and becomes about a man and his art, instead of just being about a wild guy who had some big times.

By structuring the documentary like this — by delaying Milius' present state as long as possible and indeed setting it up as a kind of "reveal" — Figueroa and Knutson avoid dealing with Milius as the man they keep claiming he is. They go long on causes but short on effects, and parts of the documentary, while entertaining, are also only about as informative as a basic Wikipedia search. There's some wonderful history here, and it's great to see, and having Milius as a subject got them access to some nice interviews (like Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg, Schwarzenegger, etc.). But as neat as the movie is, it's equally frustrating to be kept so far from its subject. Maybe Figueroa and Knutson wanted to keep Milius a legend, carved in stone and set high on a hill, instead of reckoning with the fact that he's just a man, and as subject as any of us to self-deception and regret. Then again, for all that Milius is, it's almost fitting that a film about him would be boastful and sweeping, funny and sad, and ultimately unknowable.