Even the most hardened veteran of the Hannity/O'Reilly/Nancy Grace/Triumph the Insult Comic Dog brand of confrontational television will be shocked by two things in "Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie." One: The beyond-abrasive Downey, who died in 2001, was on the air for only two years. The other is how singularly repulsive Downey remains, even after a generation of imitators.
"The Morton Downey Jr. Show" began as a local program emanating out of New Jersey in 1987; by early '88, he'd gone national. Although TV hosts such as Joe Pyne had paved the way, no one had ever brought the ethos of Circus Maximus into the arena of political "discourse" quite the way Downey did -- chain-smoking, screaming about "pablum-puking liberals" and telling his guests to shut up, lest they disagree with his bellowing audience of acolytes. Someone in the film compares that audience to a lynch mob, and there was indeed an air of menace to the Downey show, something the film's directors, Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, don't soft-pedal.
But the filmmakers, former fans of the TV phenom, also expose the soft underbelly of Downey's mania. He was the son of renowned Irish tenor Morton Downey, who was a bona fide celebrity and intimate of, among others, the Kennedys. In fact, Ted Kennedy had been a friend of the younger Downey, which makes the latter's high-decibel baiting of liberals seem all the more pathetic: He would have done anything, the film makes clear, to be more famous than his father.
And he was, the process lowering every standard he touched along the way. By the end, when his infamy made it impossible to get serious guests on the show and his ratings plummeted, Downey more or less vanished as quickly as he'd appeared. And yet, as anyone with a television knows, his legacy lives on.
PLOT The late reality TV star in all his dubious glory
RATING R (language and some nudity)
BOTTOM LINE Sturdy and disturbing biopic on the godfather of shock TV.