Abortion, rape, and neo-Nazis. These were just some of the controversial issues the conservative nutjob Morton Downey Jr. loved to tear apart in his unique, obnoxious, and politically incorrect manner.
After debuting at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival the documentary Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie made its Boston premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 1 at Emerson College’s Bright Family Screening Room. The film revolves around the life and death of one of the 1980’s most bombastic television personalities: Morton Downey Jr. Often in the shadow of his famous father, who was an Irish tenor, Morton Downey Jr. was the precursor of television programs like The Jerry Springer Show and conservative media personalities like Glenn Beck.
The documentary enthrallingly chronicles his rise as a loudmouthed, argumentative “blue collar hero”, to his fall as a womanizing, lying media whore. As one newscaster put it in the film, Downey “unleashed rage into unlimited ratings.”
Evocateur cultivates an astounding variety of personal home videos, footage from his infamous talk show, and other media appearances by Downey— an appropriate technique for a film about a man who lived his entire life in front of a camera. And these videos effectively complemented newly recorded interviews of everyone from Downey’s best friend to comedian Chris Elliott.
Although Downey died in 2001 of lung cancer, his onscreen persona comes alive throughout the entire film. While the documentary highlights his many flaws (he staged an incident where he was beaten up by skinheads in an airport bathroom for publicity), the film also shows a man who loved his daughter and became an anti-tobacco advocate in his last few years.
For television fans, the film is a fascinating history lesson, because as quickly as Downey rose to fame, he was abruptly forgotten. The documentary is a fantastic chance to delve deep inside the psyche of a television pioneer who became known as the “Father of Trash TV.”
Archival VHS footage gives the film a soft, warm television glow. It adds to the grunge and is a perfect visual companion to the star of the film, Downey. Animated sequences help showcase scenes that couldn’t be caught on film, like one of an angry Downey in his dressing room. While a tad cheesy, the animation also adds a vintage ‘80s vibe.
The score, used to highlight some of the more dramatic or comical moments, doesn’t quite work, often pulling the viewer out of the experience. It simply sounds too similar to the music found in those horrendous cable TV shows where actors recreate real life crimes. It feels out-of-place in a documentary that walks a fine line between biography and the hokey cheese of its subject matter.
But overall, the documentary is exceptionally entertaining, thanks in large part to Downey himself, who acts like an even more bigoted, politically incorrect version of Archie Bunker. While the film does drag toward the end of its 90 minute runtime, exhausting its audience in the same way Downey overexposed himself in the media, it’s a near definitive take on an overlooked television personality who was just crazy enough to change American television. Whether that change was for better or worse all depends on the opinion of the viewer. Downey wouldn’t have had it any other way.