From AM radio to cable television to Internet comment threads, volatile political discussions, infused more with insults than information, seem to be the norm nowadays. Politics has always been a nasty business, but during the late '70s/early '80s when I was a teenager, the most prominent people on television conducting discussions at the national level seemed to be liberal Phil Donahue and conservative William F. Buckley Jr. While Donahue's syndicated daytime program covered a wider range of societal topics than Buckley's PBS debate series 'Firing Line,' both men were cordial hosts to their guests, which is why both shows each had runs that spread across four decades.
In Orange County, California, during the mid-'80s, conservative Wally George held court on a local UHF channel with 'Hot Seat' where he debated the politics of the day from Buckley's side of the aisle, but that's where the similarities stopped. George was confrontational with his guests, dismissing their arguments instead of engaging them. He insulted anyone who not only thought different than he did but also looked different. He garnered some national attention after a guest flipped his desk in a fit of anger. I later discovered that George's belligerent style was made popular years earlier by 1960s radio and TV host Joe Pyne, but George brought it back and demonstrated its potential.
Success always breeds imitators, and before George could finish opening the door, Morton Downey Jr., kicked it in. He also started locally, with a program on New York-New Jersey superstation WOR, coincidentally where 'Firing Line' debuted. 'The Morton Downey Jr. Show' was closer to a wrestling program than a political talk show. Downey frequently berated his guests, blowing smoke in their faces and hurling epithets, particularly at the "pablum-puking liberals," but he also harassed libertarians like Ron Paul because of his stance toward drugs. Downey was a voice for regular folks who didn't feel like they were being heard among the elites. His aggressive antics fired up his audience, who got their chance to yell at the guests, and the attention helped to quickly push the show into national syndication. 'Evocateur' looks at Morton Downey Jr.'s entire life through modern-day interviews and archival footage.
Downey proved the Lao Tzu proverb, "The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long." After trying to follow in his father's footsteps as a singer, his talk-show antics led him to becoming the pop-culture phenomenon he so longed to be. Magazines, other television programs, and female fans sought him out, and he took advantage of all of them. However, his act wore thin. It became tough to get serious guests willing to put up with the abuse. The ratings dropped and the show was cancelled in less than two years. He tried to stay in the spotlight, but tragically was only able to do so because of his lung cancer, which turned him into an anti-smoking crusader. As clips from his last few television appearances are shown, he can be seen slowly dying.
The documentary presents a balanced portrait. Not only are fans who attended the show and its producers interviewed, but so are former competitors like Richard Bey and Sally Jesse Raphael; guest Kellie Everts, who is shown being verbally and physically abused; and Chris Elliot, who used to wickedly mock Downey on 'Late Night with David Letterman.' While Downey's friend comes clean on the infamous "attack" by skinheads at the San Francisco airport, the more notable and surprising revelation is about his close association and support of Robert and Ted Kennedy in the '60s.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story' comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard blue case. Before the menu, the disc offers trailers for 'No Place on Earth', 'Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me', 'Syrup', and 'Hammer of the Gods' as well as a promo for AXS.tv.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1, though the aspect ratio varies with the archival footage. The modern-day interviews and animated segments look great. The colors appear in bold hues and blacks are strong. The image is clean and offers strong contrast. Details are mainly seen in the bodies and clothing of the interviewees. These segments don't suffer from artifacts.
The archival footage is problematic, but the material is being used for historical reasons not to wow anyone visually. Films clips of Downey Sr. from the 1930s are a bit ragged for their age. The television program 'Juke Box Jury' from 1958 looks a bit flat due in part to the grays, blacks, and whites not looking much different from each other.
The worst may be the clips from 'The Morton Downey Jr. Show', which haven't held up well over 25 years. Many appear to have color slightly washed out. Stair-stepping appears frequently and I even caught a moire pattern on Downey shirt once.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is more than what's needed for this track, which predominantly uses the front center channel for the dialogue, which is clear and understandable. The surrounds get very limited action from the animated sequences' sound effects and brief moments of music, and the bass even less. The archival material doesn't reveal the signs of age that the video does.
'Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story' is an interesting look back at a television personality, but it's unfortunately an all-too-familiar story about someone who can't handle fame and their personal issues. When taking into account Downey's creation of such an unsympathetic character, the film's appeal is narrow. Plus, the varying video quality, nearly-mono audio, and sparse extras really limit the disc to those who are already fans, who will likely find themselves wanting more.