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‘Arthur Miller: Writer’ review: Daughter’s intimate, moving portrait

"Arthur Miller: Writer" looks at the playwright mainly through interviews with his daughter. Photo Credit: HBO / Arthur Miller Archive / Robert Miller

THE DOCUMENTARY “Arthur Miller: Writer”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Novelist, director and filmmaker Rebecca Miller — daughter of Arthur Miller (1915-2005) — spent a couple of decades recording home movie interviews of her father. Those make up the bulk of this portrait, which also includes interviews with playwright Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols, as well as the memories of her own mother, the photographer Inge Morath, Miller’s third wife, to whom he was married from 1962 until her death in 2002. The playwright also occasionally reads passages from his own journals.

MY SAY It’s probably impossible for any film to sum up such a long, complicated life as Miller’s, but this one makes the case that the attempt is best left to a daughter — a deeply empathetic and intelligent daughter, certainly, but one whose filial devotion appears boundless, too. Rebecca Miller spent decades collecting or recording much of this footage but in preparation for what, exactly, she never says. Maybe it was part of her own apprenticeship as an artist, or a desire to pin down precisely who her father is, or was, or simply an expression of that devotion.

But at the end of this film, when she asks Miller what makes a “great play,” he responds: “It’s the process of approaching the unwritten and the unspoken and the unspeakable, and the closer you get to it, the more life there seems to be.”

That definition also works for “Arthur Miller: Writer.” The closer she gets, the more alive he becomes, also the more human. The magic of this film is that Miller has erased the boundary between the observer and the observed. That may have required years of holding up an old Sony Betamax camera in his face as he ate breakfast, but it’s also apparent that he knows he’s not talking to a dispassionate interlocutor. He’s talking to his daughter. As a result, there’s an intimacy and immediacy to the exchanges. This isn’t about posterity as much as it is about love.

The portrait that emerges of Miller is an optimistic one, if not exactly a sunny one. “Pessimism,” he quips, “is the one defense I have against optimism.” Rebecca wants to know about momentous events in his life — effectively versions of “Daddy, what did you do at work today?” applied to the creation of “Death of a Salesman,” his marriage to Marilyn Monroe or his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Her father is either expansive or he confronts the unspeakable. Recalling the suicide of Monroe, he says just above a hoarse whisper, “No explaining a person,” then after a long, long silence, he can only summon one word: “Terrible.”

He dispatches HUAC with the flick of a fly swatter: “The head of the committee offered to call off the whole hearing if Marilyn would take a photograph with him. . . . We’re a country of entertainers. You have to be entertained; even the fascists needed to be entertained.” (Miller, who refused to name names after he was called to testify, was fined $500.)

In one exchange, Rebecca wonders why her father is so outwardly nonconfrontational while his plays are so tempestuous: “I sensed very early on that all real arguments are murderous, there’s a killing instinct in there that I feared, so I put it into theater,” he says.

His last words here come from his journals. It is about coyotes wandering near the Roxbury, Connecticut, home where he spent so much of his life: “We are all connected, watching one another, even the trees.”

BOTTOM LINE An intimate and moving portrait.

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