EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE
Review by Michael Jacobson
Directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: September 3, 2013
“A good dog knows who the master is. A good senator, if there is one, would know that, too.” – Morton Downey Jr.
Morton Downey Jr. was one of those fleeting cultural events you almost had to experience to believe. He rocketed to the national stage in the late 1980s and disappeared almost as quickly two years later. He pioneered confrontational television ahead of Jerry Springer and open, unabashed conservatism before Sean Hannity and others. He was beloved by many and hated by many…but perhaps the vast majority of America simply loved to hate him, like a favorite bad guy wrestler.
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie is a new documentary that looks back at the fast-burning meteorite that was The Morton Downey Jr. Show and the man who made it all possible. It reflects upon the man mostly without judgment, and lets others from Gloria Allred to Michelle Bachman review the strange legacy of an unlikely media hero.
Morton is presented as a man who once might have followed in his father’s footsteps as a singer. But Mort was always conservative, despite being friends with many in the Kennedy compound. He actually beat Rush Limbaugh to the punch as far as being the voice for many who felt under-represented in mainstream media, pop culture, and academia. But unlike Rush, his weakness was to let the show eventually overpower the message.
I personally remember watching his show, and like many, I sat with jaw agape wondering if I was really seeing what I was seeing. Morton was a master confrontationist; he got right in guests’ faces, blowing smoke and rage their way, and not letting anyone get away with crapola. If you were a liberal talking head used to being celebrated by every news outlet in the country, it had to be quite a shock to actually be challenged…and in a harsh way…by both host and television audience.
It worked for a brief time, and it’s fair to say that a lot of cable news, left and right, took a cue or two from Morton Downey Jr. But they also saw the cautionary tale he represented. His flaw was taking the spectacle so far that people stopped talking about what was discussed on his show and started talking about the circus it became.
But Morton did a lot of good during his 15 minutes of fame…he was the first to expose the Tawanna Brawley hoax on a national stage and to treat Al Sharpton like the joke he was. He preached the power of the people over government. He warned about the welfare state creating a permanent class of victims. In many ways, he was quite ahead of his time.
As mentioned, the problem with the show was that it became all about the chaos and less about the issues. Perhaps the low point was Morton’s claim that skinheads assaulted him in a public restroom…a claim he never wavered from, but many in his circle now say never happened.
And of course, there was his eventual death from lung cancer…sad, but hardly unexpected for the man who chain-smoked constantly, on air and off air. He may have been the last poster figure for smoking as cool, and he paid the ultimate price.
As a film, Evocateur is best when it’s factual and archival. It’s at its worst when it goes for style points. Animated segments, supposedly designed to represent Mort’s fractured frame of mind, are a little too fanciful for a documentary, and the fakeness seems to add editorial slant when none was needed.
Morton Downey Jr. was comfortable being judged for all his flaws and triumphs, and audiences who watch this movie, either to experience him for the first time or to remember his fleeting glory, will have plenty of chance to do just that.
As expected, the video quality is a bit of a hodgepodge, as it takes old film footage and videotape and mixed it with modern interviews and animation. Overall, the effect works well, even lending an extra sense of nostalgia when we are reminded how bad TV once looked back in the day.
Spoken words are clean and clear throughout, and that’s what mostly drives this program. There are a few attempts at more dynamic sound with the animated segments, but as mentioned, they are more distracting that serviceable.
There is a commentary track from the three directors, a collection of memorable moments, a look at the film’s animation, a trailer, and an evening with Kellie Everts.
Love him or hate him, Morton Downey Jr. and his short-lived show was influential, provocative and game-changing. Evocateur takes a look back at his fleeting fame and all that came about as a result of it. Decide for yourself whether it’s an inspiration or a reason to fear for humanity.