"Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate'" isn't likely to receive a longer theatrical exposure than the notorious 1980 flop it examines. Even so, unmistakably sympathetic but mostly even-handed doc about troubled production and release of Michael Cimino's epic should have long shelf life in fest, homevid and nontheatrical venues.

Already showcased on Trio cable network, “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate'” isn’t likely to receive a longer theatrical exposure than the notorious 1980 flop it examines. Even so, unmistakably sympathetic but mostly even-handed doc about troubled production and disastrous release of Michael Cimino’s epic Western should have long shelf life in fest, homevid and nontheatrical venues.

Vet documentarian Michael Epstein (“The Battle Over ‘Citizen Kane,'”) draws heavily from well-received 1985 book by Steven Bach, senior v.p. and head of worldwide production for United Artists when UA green-lit “Heaven’s Gate.” Taking its cue from Bach’s tome, pic renders production of ill-fated pic — originally budgeted at $7.5 million, but completed for $36 million — as a slow-motion train wreck.

Ultimately, however, Epstein comes off as appreciably more forgiving of Cimino’s fanatical perfectionism and “epic mismanagement,” even to the point of suggesting the original 3-hour, 45-minute version of “Heaven’s Gate” is, for all its many flaws, “a beautiful, ambitious film” that deserves critical re-evaluation.

Artfully entwining outtakes, production stills, film clips and newly filmed interviews with executives, actors and crew, Epstein methodically charts stormy progress of the initially promising project.

Fresh from his triumph with “The Deer Hunter” (1978), his Oscar-winning Vietnam War drama, Cimino was actively courted by UA and other studios eager to release the hot director’s follow-up opus. Bach recalls that, upon seeing “The Deer Hunter,” he was equivocal: “This is a potentially great filmmaker.” Right from the start, however, the former UA exec (who frequently appears on camera through “Final Cut”) had minor misgivings.

During pre-production, for example, Cimino insisted on casting French actress Isabelle Huppert as his female lead. When Bach (among others) complained that Huppert couldn’t speak English well enough for the part, Cimino steamrolled over all objections. After that, Bach claims, production went downhill, then off a cliff.

In other interviews, some of Cimino’s most passionate defenders — including cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and co-stars Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson and Brad Dourif — are unstinting in their support of the director. (Cimino himself declined to be interviewed, although he appears extensively in archival material.) But narrator Willem Dafoe sounds disapproving, if not downright critical, as he reports how, during long months of on-location filming in and around remote Montana locales, Cimino ran wildly over budget while shooting countless retakes, demanding dozens of expensively constructed sets, and employing hundreds of extras and bit players (many extensively trained as riders and, no kidding, rollerskaters).

By the end of the sixth day of shooting, Cimino was five days behind schedule. By the end of principal photography, he had 1.5 million feet of exposed film. When “Heaven’s Gate” finally had its Manhattan premiere in November 1980, critics were infamously unkind. (New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby: “(It) fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of “The Deer Hunter,” and the Devil has just come around to collect.”)

Pic was quickly withdrawn from release, and drastically re-edited. But nothing helped.

“Final Cut” is by turns wistful and rueful as it considers the enduring legacies of “Heaven’s Gate” debacle. Almost universally derided in 1980 as a worst-case example of auteurist excess, Cimino’s fiasco continues to be viewed by buffs, historians and industry execs as the B.O. bust that ended the golden age of “director-driven cinema” in ’70s Hollywood. Even Kristofferson concedes that “Heaven’s Gate” was “used by powers that be to stop a way of filmmaking where the author was the director and was in control of the money.”

Other interviewees, including Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy, persuasively argue that “Heaven’s Gate” permanently altered and expanded mainstream news coverage of the film industry. Earlier over-budget pix such as “Apocalypse Now” might have received cursory coverage in newsweeklies and other outlets. But Cimino’s film — described by anchor Tom Brokaw in an archival NBC News clip as “the biggest bomb in Hollywood history” — was an impetus (if not the impetus) for more detailed and widely disseminated coverage of B.O. grosses, on-location misadventures and behind-the-scenes dramas.

Much like Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme’s “A Decade Under the Influence” and Kenneth Bowser’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” slickly and smartly made “Final Cut” could be an invaluable teaching tool in any film studies course that focuses on halcyon era of ’70s cinema.

Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of 'Heaven's Gate'

Production

A Viewfinder Prods., Specialty Films production. Produced by Michael Epstein, Rachel Horovitz. Co-producer, Caroline Suh. Directed, written by Michael Epstein, based on the book "Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of 'Heaven's Gate'" by Steven Bach.

Crew

Camera (color, Digital Betacam), Michael Chin; editor, Penny Elliott Hays; sound, Scott Harber, Merce Williams, Jeff Meese. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 10, 2004. Running time: 79 MIN.

With

Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, Brad Dourif, Vilmos Zsigmond, Steven Bach, Todd McCarthy.
Narrator: Willem Dafoe

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