“Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” (2012)

by A.J. Hakari

"Evocateur" poster

I’ve appreciated several films that revolved around despicable people, but Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie is one of the biggest tests I’ve ever come across. This documentary opts to take a sledgehammer to your buttons rather than give them a mere push, forcing you to experience in close proximity anger, pity, disgust, and empathy. Its subject is a man who’s been called both an opportunist scraping the bottom of society’s barrel and a hero serving as a mouthpiece for the voiceless — sometimes by the same people. I can’t say that Evocateur is always successful at being as complex of a chronicle as it thinks it is, but as something aiming to bring its audience’s collective blood to a bubbling boil, it hits its mark about a hundredfold.

Morton Downey Jr. was a live grenade hurled onto the battlefield of talk television. Where other hosts conducted innocuous interviews on sanitized sets, Downey was loud, crude, and confrontational, literally going face-to-face against his guests before the cheers of an equally raucous audience. The man who grew up the son of a famous crooner (and, by some accounts, rather resentfully, at that) now channeled every furious fiber of his being on TV for a living. At first, it paid off handsomely, with Downey’s fanbase and ratings rising at a meteoric pace. But keeping up with the public’s appetite to see cursing and shoving matches every single night took a toll on Downey that shocked no one, one that forced him to try increasingly desperate methods of commanding the world’s attention.

How deeply you’ll be drawn into Evocateur depends almost solely on how much of Downey himself you can stomach. Critical as certain portions of the film are about how he treated others (yelling those guests with opposing views off the stage being a tradition on his show), it’s still all about demonstrating what a brave, passionate, trend-setting fellow he was, whether you liked him or not. As for myself, I was too young to catch his original two-year tour on the airwaves, and I’m not to any extent a fan of the miserable circus of reality/talk TV his program helped inspire. Trying to win me over with Downey’s hardships raised my eyebrows to their limit, and it sure felt like that first half was giving me the hard sell, but fortunately, the further Evocateur goes, the more disturbing motivation behind his constant need to seize the spotlight is revealed.

Evocateur makes its greatest impact when it takes the time to show what really drove a guy like Downey. We bear witness to a lifelong grudge against his father (one co-worker tells of Mort tearing an issue of Time with his dad on the cover to shreds), political pursuits, and a string of relationships with women, the last of which reportedly sent him spiraling into obsession. All of this led to a neverending quest for acceptance, which meant having to be as crass, sleazy, and exploitative as his audience wanted him to be — if there was something to keep those Nielsens up, Downey would do it. But Evocateur is far less adept at getting us to buy into its image of Downey as a modern folk hero and broadcasting rebel who did things that other talk show hosts were too big of pansies to do. Yeah, he brought a lot of daring content to the small screen, and he relished in stirring the pot, but he comes across more convincing as a smug, morals-free ratings hound than the social crusader he admitted he pretended to be.

If Evocateur‘s interviewees are any indication, Morton Downey Jr.’s followers are alive, well, and the perfect demographic for this movie. Simultaneously deemed the devil incarnate and patron saint of the blue-collared in his time, it’ll be interesting to see how many nowadays view Downey as a topic worth dedicating a 90-minute film to, versus the number that swept him under the rug with other relics of the ’80s ages ago. Evocateur is no well-oiled machine, but its few sputters of insight haven’t been totally drowned out by the deluded clunking that dominates most of the picture.