Review: Évocateur – The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2013)
I must confess to having absolutely no idea who Morton Downey Jr. was before I started this film, though it’s safe to say that 90 minutes later I not only knew the man but also recognised his influence in almost every facet of modern American broadcasting. The precursor not just to contemporary right-wing “shock jocks” (read: morons) like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, but also to “personalities” like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, Morton Downey Jr. was the man who first popularised the confrontational, Howard Beale-esque style of television that is now so common, so powerful and so utterly detrimental to the critical faculties of almost everyone who watches it.
Évocateur attempts to examine the life and career of Downey Jr. in the context of contemporary media, looking at how his show changed the style and the etiquette of the popular American talk show forever more. It offers a candid and often intriguing perspective on the man’s life, granting the audience access to his family, his friends, the personalities he went on to influence and, perhaps most importantly, the producers of his show, all of whom come across as parasitic vultures who used a clearly unstable and unpredictable man to line their own pockets. Their candour and honesty when questioned about the part they played in Downey Jr.’s rise to fame and subsequent downfall makes for fascinating but infuriating viewing, particularly as they go almost entirely unchallenged by the filmmakers, who play a rather neutral role and offer little to no judgment on the story they’re telling.
Despite all of this – or perhaps because of it, depending on how you view things – Évocateur feels a little bit tame. The really interesting aspects of Downey Jr.’s life – his actual political views, his shift in outlook and opinion in later life, his friendship with the Kennedys, and his relationships with his numerous wives – feel underexplored, while the success of his show feels as though it has been exaggerated. The documentary focuses too heavily on The Morton Downey Jr. Show rather than Morton Downey Jr. the man, and though it’s interesting to see where this brand of television first started, there are far more thought-provoking things that could’ve been discussed but weren’t. In particular, the suggestion that Downey Jr.’s ultra-conservative, uber-populist views weren’t genuine is one that deserves to be explored in much more detail, as it raises a number of provocative questions about the authenticity of the opinions of contemporary rabble-rousers like Glenn Beck, Alex Jones and Sarah Palin, to name but a few. (Though in Ms. Palin’s case in particular, I think we’ll have to concede that she is just that stupid…)
Similarly, though the film offers a rudimentary insight into the “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” mentality of the all-too-easily manipulated mob, it doesn’t really go into much detail about how perceived passion and charisma can be used to trick an audience into believing absolutely anything you want them to. These days, it seems that positioning yourself as “anti-establishment” is one of the easiest ways of getting people to listen to you, however much of a raving crackpot you are, as it makes you appear like a “normal” member of society who isn’t under the control of the mainstream media (despite generally being paid hefty sums of money by them…) and, as such, your views are considered more honest and “valid”. Downey Jr is a classic example of a man who played to the mob in such a manner, yet the effects of this aren’t really granted much importance at all by this documentary.
Nonetheless, for what it is and what it does, Évocateur is enlightening, engaging and relatively entertaining. As I said, I didn’t know a thing about Morton Downey Jr. before it started and now I know a lot about his work, his lifestyle and how he laid the foundations for the assortment of lunatics we now call “TV personalities” to build their careers upon. There’s a certain element of “style over substance” to the thing, sure, though that’s only fitting when you consider how the subject of the documentary conducted himself in public.
Give it a look, if only so you know who to blame for the fact that shrieking crackpots like Glenn Beck even have an audience at all…