Chaos and Control, by David Bax
Late in the run of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a scene where one of the non-superpowered characters compares the use of magic to hammering a nail. If you hold the hammer down at the end of the handle, he points out, you can swing it with a lot of power. But you give up some control and could end up smashing your thumb. Conversely, if you choke up a little bit, you can hit the nail right on the head but it may take more time to get it in. The point of the parable is there’s a trade-off between power and control. Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger’s excellent new documentary, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, makes a similar case in telling the story of the titular talk show host.
Morton Downey Jr., the son of famed singer Morton Downey, became a cultural sensation in the late 1980s for his television talk show, onto which he would invite political and social figures with serious agendas and then scream at them. His blunt and crude tirades were presented as – and may have, in fact, been – unvarnished honesty. They stoked an intense response in many viewers and propelled him to stardom at a height from which he seemed to fall at the same velocity. His show was on the air for less than two years.
The directors suggest, without overdoing it, that Downey was either the first wave of or just another in a long line of angry conservative commentators – like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, etc. – who ride the indignation of impressionable Americans to fame. Wisely, the film does not attempt to come to conclusions about whether these folks are cynical hucksters preying on the under-informed or true voices of a vaguely disenfranchised section of the population or both. In some of the wealth of edifying footage, we see Downey meeting with his producers before a show. They quote facts on the upcoming topic and, despite appearing to be more interested in his lunch and his cigarette, we later see him spouting these tidbits from memory, word for word, in front of the cameras and with the frothing zeal that made him famous. This makes the case for a sharp mind but not necessarily a passionate one. It’s also hard to reconcile his fit of outrage at Ron Paul’s advocacy of drug legalization with his smug insistence to a vegan guest that he has the right to poison himself however he wants.
Kramer, Miller and Newberger don’t set out to deny that Downey was motivated by pure belief or that his indignation was righteous. Still, they end up making a much more effective case that he was spurred by a desperate ambition to be more famous than his father. This was a man with a chip on his shoulder that didn’t weigh him down so much as it encouraged him to scorch the earth at any hint or perception of a slight and to do so in a way that was fun to watch for his audience, a group of self-identified disenfranchisees for whom Downey seemed to feel genuine affection.
To focus on comparisons to other conservative media figures would be a disservice to the truth of what Downey really was. Even their supporters, I imagine, wouldn’t describe Beck or Limbaugh as cool. But Downey somehow, despite being a guy in his 50s from Martha’s Vineyard who wore a business suit, managed to appeal – and strongly – to American youth. The directors literally illustrate his hipness with a series of cartoon vignettes imagining short-skirted young women flocking to Downey while he waits placidly behind a screen of tobacco smoke. Some mixture of his indignant tantrums, his brazen lack of décor and his go-fuck-yourself chain-smoking found traction. As one of the now grown young fans of the show points out in the movie, everything was black or white with Downey and that’s a very attractive worldview to a seventeen-year-old.
His simplistic but consuming anger, however, was the catalyst both to his success and to the end of it. Évocateur details the power Downey wielded with his outrage but also how that outrages stoked fires in his audience that burned brighter and, tragically, faster than he could control. In the relative blink of an eye, the world moved on and he was left only his reflection to kick and spit at.