Monday October 14, 2019

Movie Review: Milius (2013)


John Milius is a legendary figure among legendary figures. He was big brother to George Lucas at USC Film School, where he was considered the breakout talent, the guy who was going to make it, while Steven Spielberg considers him the greatest storyteller among all of these great filmmakers—a spellbinding raconteur. He wrote “Apocalypse Now,” directed the first “Conan,” wrote the U.S.S. Indianapolis scene in “Jaws.” He took on the b-picture “Evel Knievel,” starring George Hamilton, which inspired my brother to jump neighborhood kids on his stingray bike at age 11. Plus he’s the supposed inspiration for John Goodman’s gun-toting, keeping-kosher Walter Sobchak in the Coen Bros.’ “The Big Lebowski.”

Not a bad resumé. Yet he still felt the need to pad it. Here’s Harrison Ford: “He likes to blow it up bigger than life.” Here’s George Lucas: “And then he’s created this ... persona.”

“Milius,” directed Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, acknowledges Milius’ tendencies to inflate himself while doing a bit of the same themselves. Early on, for example, we get a voice saying, “John Milius had more movies made than any writer in the history of Hollywood.” A quick IMDb check reveals 29 writing credits, of which about 18 are feature films. Pull a name out of a hat. Woody Allen has 80 writing credits, of which approximately 61 are feature films. Nope.

Basically, the doc loves the big guy too much. As a result, they miss opportunities to clarify the inconsistencies.

Toy soldier
Here’s one—an early comment from Milius’ son, who’s now a prosecutor in LA:

There’s something about his personality that is sort of oppositional. If the counter-culture was going left, he was going to go right. To be the opposite of the counter-culture. He was trying to be as controversial in a way as possible.

He’s explaining his father’s right-wing tendencies on college campuses in the 1960s. That’s actually where Milius got the title for “Apocalypse Now.” In an archived interview, sucking on his ever-present cigar, Milius explains that back then kids were wearing “Nirvana Now” buttons with a peace sign on them. So to tweak them he modified one. He changed the peace sign into a B-52 and changed “Nirvana” into “Apocalypse.” Apocalypse Now.

Great story. But ... if he were truly oppositional, why, in the right-wing ’80s, did he go further right? He directed and co-wrote “Red Dawn,” the most paranoid of Reagan-era flicks. How is that oppositional? I guess you could say he was still tweaking noses but this time in liberal Hollywood, but I don’t completely buy that argument. You put him in a Republican convention, with his stogie and his AK-47, and he’d fit right in.

Hollywood movies have always glorified guns and violence, and for all his talents he pushed this tendency further: “Dirty Harry” (uncredited), “Magnum Force,” “Conan,” “Red Dawn.” “He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women,” actor Sam Elliott says proudly but a bit defensively. “He writes for men. Because he’s a man.”

The doc begins with an epigraph from the manliest of men, Teddy Roosevelt, about how critics don’t count (we know, we know), and how the credit belongs to the man “who is actually in the arena.” First, and not to get all critic-y, but it’s kind of a self-serving quote from TR, isn’t it? Since TR was that man in the arena? I never really thought about that before. Second, how does it fit Milius? He wasn’t in the arena. He was a man writing about the man in the arena. Or the man filming a story about the man in the arena. I guess a film set can be a kind of arena. But then so can a book group.

He was a failed soldier who wound up playing with guns for the rest of his life. He says he wanted to go to Vietnam and die before he was 26, but he had asthma and washed out. “I missed my war,” he says.

I would’ve liked more on his big-brother friendships with Lucas and Spielberg. They don’t seem like motorbike-riding, gun-shooting types. What did they do together? When did they drift apart? When did Milius realize the ride was over? That his friends were creating mythic stories that were part of the culture and he was ... not? Or no longer?

After “Red Dawn,” he claims he was blacklisted by Hollywood. “I’ve been blacklisted as surely as anybody in the ’50s,” he says. The doc, to its credit, then cuts to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood not buying it. Here’s Arnold:

I have always been out there as a Republican. They don't care if you‘re Libertarian, if you’re an independent, if you decline to state if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that means nothing to Hollywood. In Hollywood, the only thing that means [anything] is money. 

That said, if you are going to blacklist someone, it wouldn’t be stars like Eastwood or Schwarzenegger. A writer-director is way easier.

That said, “blacklisted as surely as anybody in the ’50s”? C’mon, John. Did you have to go before a Senate subcommittee and explain your past political convictions? Did you have to name names? Show up hat-in-hand before, say, Tim Robbins, trying to get a job? No? Then don’t compare yourself to true victims of government-industry oppression.

Basically it sounds like people just decided he wasn’t worth the hassle. We get a story about how he brought a .45 to a notes meeting with the head of MGM. That’s going to wear fast. At one point, Charlie Sheen quotes Milius saying the following: “‘My fantasy’—it’s insane—‘was to fly across tree tops and drop fire on children.’” The “It’s insane” part is Sheen commenting on the quote. And if Charlie Sheen is questioning your faculties, maybe it’s time to drop the “let’s play with guns” shtick and re-examine.

Tough fall
He didn’t. We hear audio of him self-mythologizing about his post-“Red Dawn” career:

That was the point where they said, “He’s gone too far, now we’ve got to shut him down.” Critics said, “We said he was a threat to western civilization. This is proof.” Pauline Kael told us he was a fascist. He’s genuinely a right-wing character. I am not a fascist. I am a total man of the people. They are the fascists. They are creating the fascist society. I am much closer to a Maoist. However, I am a Zen Anarchist.

What garbage. Not a fascist ... because a man of the people? As if Hitler wasn’t? And who bragged about being a Maoist in the ’80s and ’90s? Not even the Chinese.

He had a tough fall. Opportunities dried up, his manager/best friend embezzled his money, which he never got back, and earlier this decade he suffered a stroke. He lost coordination, some ability to walk, and, perhaps worst of all, the ability to speak. Spielberg is poignant and empathetic on the great raconteur suddenly silenced. 

I had issues with “Milius” but it’s worth checking out. (It's currently streaming on amazon prime.) The man was a pivotal figure at a pivotal time for movies. But his friends created myths that resonated with the world; Milius wound up creating self-myths that didn’t.

Posted at 06:30 AM on Monday October 14, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2013  
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