Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie: Film Review

This real-life show-biz tale makes for fascinating viewing.

This entertaining documentary recounts the rise and fall of the legendarily pugnacious and controversial talk-show host.

In its portrait of an incendiary media figure who burned brightly before crashing and burning, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie effectively makes the case that the controversial talk-show host effectively spawned such modern-day contemporaries as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and countless others. This fascinating show-business documentary brings its subject to life, warts and all, in a way that would no doubt have thoroughly pleased him.

The son of a famed Irish tenor and the sister of Hollywood movie stars Joan and Constance Bennett, Downey was separated early in his life from his mother and developed a severe resentment towards his emotionally unavailable father. Nonetheless, he attempted to follow in Downey, Sr.’s footsteps, embarking on a failed singing career before finding his niche late in life as a rabidly right-wing, insult-spouting host of a talk show on New York’s Channel 9 that was quickly syndicated across the country.

Not so much engaging as fiercely and often profanely combating his often hapless guests, Downey tapped into a vein of American conservative populism that belied his early, privileged  years as a friend and supporter of the Kennedys, Ted in particular.

Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger entertainingly chronicle his rise and fall, which occurred, in television terms, in blindingly quick fashion. His show, which began in 1987, became a phenomenon, only to be canceled less than two years later after degenerating into a freak show frequently populated by scantily clad strippers and hate-spouting neo-Nazis.

His fate was sealed in ironic fashion, considering that he had championed the cause of Tawana Brawley, the young black woman whose claim of being sexually assaulted by a group of white men was later proved to be false. In an effort to revive his own sagging fortunes, Downey faked an incident in a San Francisco airport bathroom in which he claimed to have been physically attacked by a gang of skinheads who painted swastikas on his face and clothes. Thoroughly debunked here via the testimony of one of his closest friends and associates, the incident was a sad coda to his career, which failed to regain any momentum before his death from lung cancer in 2001. The chain-smoking provocateur did at least achieve some personal redemption via an ardent anti-smoking campaign, which included Congressional testimony and a public service television commercial.

Despite his personal lapses, Downey was always a highly entertaining character, and the film benefits from the use of copious clips from his show, including a charged encounter with Ron Paul in which he shouts “I puke at you” to the outraged presidential candidate. Ed Koch is seen declaring that he would never go on the program, describing Downey’s audience as a “lynch mob.” We also hear from several of his former producers, one of whom points out that Downey’s show was the first to put its audiences through metal detectors.

Despite its occasional interludes of roughly-hewn animation, Evocateur is a fairly prosaic, straightforward affair. But its central figure is so colorfully compelling that it’s nonetheless riveting from start to finish.

Opens: Friday, June 7 (Magnolia Pictures)

Production: Ironbound Films

Directors/producers: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger

Screenwriter: Daniel A. Miller

Directors of photography: Roger T. Grange, Seth Kramer, Richard Patterson, Rodney Patterson, Chad Wilson, Ben Wolf

Editor: Seth Kramer

Composer: Peter Rundquist

Rated R, 90 min.