As a director, Michael Apted had two careers. In one, he was a sturdy professional who made a number of solid thrillers and sensitively wrought dramas. You might describe this half as that of a fine craftsman—a real pro. But in his other career, as a documentarian, he was something far greater. In that filmmaking space, he was a groundbreaker.
Apted began his journey as a director in the mid-60s on British television, helming episodes for a variety of series. He wouldn’t direct his first feature until 1972, the largely forgotten Triple Echo with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed.
Eight years later, he would finally break into the mainstream with Coal Miner’s Daughter, a biopic on the great country singer, Loretta Lynn. I actually saw Coal Miner’s Daughter in the theater with my mom in 1980. I was a bit to young to grasp it all, but because my mother had interest in the subject, and where the film took place (like Lynn my mother and I were both born in a holler in Kentucky), she felt compelled to take me. While much of the film sailed over my head, I do remember how it felt. It felt…authentic. I knew those people on screen, I’d walked those dirt roads, I knew that music. Coal Miner’s Daughter connected with the public at large as well. It was a financial success and earned Sissy Spacek an Oscar for best actress for not only playing Loretta Lynn, but singing her songs too.
Apted never quite repeated the success of Coal Miner’s Daughter, but he did make a number of solid films over the remainder of his career—many that have been unjustly overlooked.
Gorky Park from 1983 starring William Hurt is among my favorites. Hurt plays Arkady, a Russian police officer investigating a triple murder that leads to a conspiracy involving the Moscow government. It was a staple on HBO in the 80s, and just thinking of it now makes me want to view this compulsively watchable thriller again.
The 1984 domestic drama Firstborn with Terri Garr and Peter Weller is another gem. Centered around a young man played by Christopher Collet (what the hell ever happened to him?), who goes to great lengths to protect his mother (Garr) from her increasingly dangerous new boyfriend (Weller). As the son of a single mother who didn’t always choose the best suitors, Firstborn greatly resonated with me – even as the final act veered into conventional thriller territory.
I was also deeply moved by Gorillas in the Mist (1988) based on the life of the fierce (and eventually unstable) primatologist and activist, Dian Fossey (played to the hilt by Sigourney Weaver). Fossey was basically a radical version of Jane Goodall—going to great and dangerous extents to protect the silverback gorillas she was studying in Africa. In creating the film, Apted didn’t rely on actors in gorilla suits or animatronics, he shot Weaver with actual gorillas. A borderline crazy maneuver (silverbacks are not only huge, but, you know, wild) that added an extraordinary level of authenticity to the film. Weaver’s performance was rightly praised (earning her a best actress nomination), but many critics found the film overly manipulative, and some who knew Fossey took issue with the film’s historical accuracy. Both of those criticisms have merit, but one can’t overlook the accomplishment of making a film using, again, actual gorillas. In doing so, Apted made Gorillas in the Mist infinitely more affecting. As the film closed with Fossey’s assistant using stones to connect her grave to that of her most beloved primate, I wept. I had never done that in a theater before.
Three years later, Apted made Class Action, a father-daughter legal thriller starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that no one would confuse with The Verdict, but would certainly qualify as a good night out.
In 1992, Apted delivered a fascinating twofer: Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart. The former is a documentary investigating the 1975 shootout at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which led to the deaths of two FBI agents and the wrongful conviction and (continued) incarceration of Lakota activist Leonard Peltier. The latter is a narrative feature starring Val Kilmer that was inspired by the Pine Ridge shootout. Incident at Oglala was roundly praised, yet somehow overlooked by the Academy. Thunderheart received middling reviews and failed to find a wider audience, but I believe it deserved better too.
Blink from 1993 is one of my favorite “lost” films of that decade. Ostensibly about a blind violinist (Madeleine Stowe) who slowly regains her sight and becomes embroiled in a search for a serial killer, Blink is modestly effective as a thriller (although those elements work just fine), but registers strongly as a character study. The ever luminous Stowe grounds her character by making her complicated and quite often, difficult. She’s no saintly disabled woman, she’s frustrated by her limitations and has self-destructive tendencies. It’s truly one of her best performances. I have no doubt that Apted’s thoughtfulness and sensitivity added greatly to her work. It should also be said that the film is sexy as hell.
The next year, Apted directed Nell, another film with a female protagonist. His telling of a story of a woman who grew up alone in the wild, creating her own language and way of life, was praised by some and ridiculed by others. There were those that found the film too cloying and saccharine, but the film did earn Jodie Foster a best actress nomination for her work as the title character.
Perhaps the strangest entry in Apted’s CV is the Pierce Brosnan Bond film, The World is Not Enough from 1999. While Apted was certainly comfortable in the thriller genre, the overly artificial nature of the Bond films did not play to his strengths. Like most Bond films it was a sizable success—even if you can’t find one person who can tell you what the hell it was about.
In 2001, Apted made his last well-reviewed drama with the WW2 code-breaking thriller, Enigma, starring Kate Winslet. It’s one of those films that critics generally liked, had a fine cast, and was handsomely mounted, but for whatever reasons, found no audience.
After Enigma, Apted made a few more features (including Amazing Grace, the second Narnia film, and Chasing Mavericks) that left no great critical imprint.
What Apted did continue to do with distinction up until 2019, is continue one of the greatest filmmaking achievements in the history of the medium:
The Up Series.
Beginning with 7 Up way back in 1964, Apted would follow a group of Brits from childhood all the way until they reached their senior years. Beginning at the age of seven, Apted would return to this group every seven years to check in on their lives. The Up Series is not only a grand social experiment, it is a landmark in cinema.
To have sustained the series from 7 Up to 63 Up is a testament to the sort of commitment that truly boggles the mind. Over most of his career, Apted was a well-paid, in-demand filmmaker. But regardless of what lucrative opportunities were before him, he kept returning (without fail) to this career long (for him) and lifelong (for the subjects) project every seven earthly rotations.
And what he left us with was more than just a uniquely structured project. The Up Series is one of the most revealing, objective, and humane chronicles of human life ever put on film. While one must certainly credit the subjects (most of whom contributed to every film in the series), it is Apted’s rigor and commitment that made this one of a kind endeavor possible.
“One of a kind.”
That was the idea that gripped me most while writing about the Up Series. Because for all of Apted’s fine work in narrative film, it is this group of films that I think he will (and should) be most remembered for. Not only for the excellence of his creation, but more because it has no peers. You simply can’t measure the Up Series, there’s nothing to compare it to.
Michael Apted died two days ago. He was 79 years old.