They say that in Hollywood, you're only as good as your last picture. It's a good thing nobody told the wunderkinds of yesteryear, otherwise documentarians Joey Figueroa and Zak Knuston might never have given us Milius, an exhaustingly comprehensive chronicle of one man's rise, semi-fall, and redemption in the big bad movie business.
Milius progresses by the standard talking-head documentary format, and is none the worse for wear because of it, with an all-star cast of commentators driving home just how talented and esteemed a writer and director John Milius is. In the first ten minutes, there are interviews with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Sam Elliot, and Oliver Stone, all with nothing but glowing praise sprinkled with a healthy dose of no-varnish critique (we get the sense by the end of the film that this is most likely exactly the way Milius would like it). We begin with brief coverage of Milius' early life, his meteoric rise in film school and early days in the industry, then move on to the faltering middle of his career (at which point there is speculation that his sometimes controversial personal politics did him no favors), and conclude with the tragedy of his recent stroke and subsequent loss of speech. It's a fitting hero's journey for a man who believes so strongly in adherence to the Homeric tradition of storytelling, complete with a bittersweet ending that is simultaneously uplifting and melancholy.
While Milius isn't breaking any new ground in terms of documentary mechanics, it's an appropriate vehicle for a filmmaker who valued laser-focused, nuts-and-bolts traditionalism over flashy novelty. The sheer scope of the man's career gives Figueroa and Knuston a lot of material to work with, and it's no small feat that they manage to pull a very intriguing and compelling narrative together from what could only have been a daunting amount of footage. Most of Milius progresses through the prism of the filmmaker's constant search for self-definition in a life that had for him been defined by an inability to become a military man and die the way he wanted, as a hero. In a way, the two directors show us that Milius' career is one man's refusal to give up on his dream by breathing life into heroes and villains that will live on long after the creator has turned to dust (Conan the Barbarian, Dirty Harry, and Colonel Kurtz among them).
Just when the film begins to turn into a bit of a grating Milius love-fest, Figueroa and Knuston throw us the hero's hubris: chronicling the man's alleged black-listing form Hollywood, due largely to personal politics that have been called controversial (but that, at least in this film, seem to be little more than a refusal to toe the line). There follows a tragic fall into physical deterioration, and a chance for redemption as the film closes with Milius making steady progress in his speech and physical therapy.
Milius' success as a documentary is twofold: first it, will either respark or ignite anew the passions one has for some of the greatest movies ever made. Secondly, it sheds light on and builds empathy for a legendary figure of filmmaking that has sadly faded from our collective consciousness over the years. In its darker moments, Milius can read like a eulogy for an era when raw, unchecked dictatorial artists fought to get films that mattered made, but the film's underlying message is one of hope that the passion and bravado that Milius brings to the world of film and story is still alive in the young creatives of today. Checking out this documentary, and then the entirety of Milius' credits is a good start.