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Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie Review

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“Is this a passing fancy or is this in front of the wave?”

Former Today Show host Bryant Gumbel asked this of rabble-rouser extraordinaire Morton Downey Jr. sometime during his meteoric rise to the top of syndicated television. The quote very appropriately concludes this exceptionally entertaining documentary chronicling Downey’s life and career, and its answer is quite clear. Downey might not have known exactly what he had on his hands, but the popularity of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and others proves Downey, mad man that he was, operated way ahead of his time.

The son of a famous Irish crooner, Downey spent much of his young adult life trying to strike it big in the music industry. He had a few moderately successful records, including 1958’s “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”, but it wasn’t until 1987—at the age of 55—that Downey acquired the fame he’d sought for decades.

The Morton Downey Jr. Show debuted in New York-New Jersey markets (the program was filmed in Secaucus, NJ), but it wasn’t long before the show’s popularity (as well as that of its host) exploded, and before the show’s one-year anniversary, it was being nationally syndicated. The content of the show was unlike anything else being broadcast at that time. Downey tackled politics, current events, and other very touchy subjects in as explosive a way as you can imagine. He shouted at everyone. He fought with those he disagreed with. He insulted guests, cursed on air, and encouraged an impossibly rowdy audience (known as “the beast”) to get in line behind him with pitchforks and torches.

The show—which you’ll see a lot of in clips throughout the film—is something else. Though you’ll see the seeds of Beck and company in what Downey was trying to do (assuming Downey even knew what he was trying to do), Downey’s production is almost completely foreign to us today. While populist fire-breathers have taken over TV news, no one is really doing what Downey did. His show was much more confrontational. Jerry Springer, despite the disparity in subject matter, is a more apt comparison. But as far as Bryant Gumbel’s question goes, was Downey in front of the wave? It’s hard to argue the guy doesn’t belong on the conservative “info-tainment” Mount Rushmore.

Downey’s downfall is swift and obvious. As he gets bigger, he constantly needs to outdo himself, and he simply can’t without losing that vestige of authenticity that made him so big in the first place. Then there’s the question of whether or not Downey even knew what he was doing. He’s aware of the cameras, of course, but the guy has a vicious temper and a crippling inability to ward off vices. He’s a chain smoker (something that would kill him a little more than a decade later), and he LOVES beautiful women. During his show’s run, we see him woo a woman he’d later marry after divorcing wife number three.

His downfall was complete after an incident at an airport which saw Downey fabricate a story about being mugged by neo-Nazis. He drew swastikas on his clothing and cut his own hair. The police never found any evidence of a mugger or muggers, and though Downey denied faking it to the day he died, his friends and colleagues interviewed here confirm the incident was all Downey’s doing.

It’s hard for a documentary chronicling such a fascinating figure to fall flat, but Evocateur features a number of touches that make it something pretty special. Because so much of the film is archival footage, directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger employ highly stylized animation that serves as both an entertaining way to transition between sequences and a useful way to get shots, facial expressions, etc. that are otherwise impossible. The directors also assemble a quality and knowledgeable group of talking heads, including Gloria Allred and Alan Dershowitz, both of whom were frequent guests on Downey’s show. In addition to these famous faces, we hear from a group of former die-hard Downey supporters, the show’s creator, its producers, and a former aide to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who was a friend if not a political ally of Downey’s.

It’s certainly possible that the more Left-leaning viewer will find Downey’s antics too much to handle, but that wasn’t the case for me. And it’s not as if the filmmakers mock him; they seem to hold nothing but reverence at least for what the man accomplished. Mostly, this is an even-handed approach, which I appreciated, and it’s arguably the most entertaining documentary I’ve seen since Exit Through the Gift Shop.

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