An unaccountably gentle portrait of a pioneering TV asshole, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie posits its namesake’s short-lived talk show (1987–1989) as the template for the subsequent outrage-baiting of Jerry Springer, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck—not to mention a natural successor to the paranoia-mongering of Joe McCarthy. Downey wasn’t the first media demagogue, but his legacy, as one interviewee optimistically puts it, was his “passion,” as well as what another calls his ability to make it cool for a host to berate his guests. The film trots out vintage footage of Downey fighting with Ron Paul over drug legalization and the epic shouting matches he engineered after Tawana Brawley’s rape allegations hit the news, during which time he and Al Sharpton became partners in mutual exploitation. As Downey’s numbers began to slip, he eventually crafted his own sensationalizing charges, fabricating an incident in which he claimed skinheads had beat him up in an airport restroom.
Évocateur has no major bombshells to offer by way of explaining how a onetime Kennedy family supporter and failed singer re-invented himself as a right-wing superstar. It’s pretty obvious to everyone who knew Downey that this was an attention-seeking pose, possibly stemming from the man’s stated desire to be more famous than his crooner dad. Downey’s on-air enemies Gloria Allred and Alan Dershowitz turn up to offer testimonials, yet the film still seems short on nuance or insight. (As festival reviews have noted, there’s no mention of the time Downey brought his gay, HIV-positive brother on the show—a ballsy move in which he tested the sympathy of his rowdy, proto-Tea Party audience.)
Ironically for a movie about the ratings value of shock, Évocateur suffers from its own lack of red meat. In fan-letter fashion, everyone from the show’s producers to Downey’s daughter to Pat Buchanan nonchalantly reminisces about the time when bile-filled rants on television filled a niche. (The film also notes Downey’s praiseworthy turn as an anti-smoking advocate, a role he assumed in the years before his death from lung cancer in 2001.) The main difference between the olden days and Fox News now, the movie implies, is that Downey reached a point when even his advertisers had had enough.