When actor George Hamilton approached daredevil Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel about starring in a biopic based on his life, Knievel pointed a gun at Hamilton’s head and ordered him to read the proposed script out loud. Despite the volatile behavior of his subject, Hamilton is an executive producer and talking head in director Daniel Junge’s documentary Being Evel. The film can’t help but be entertaining to anyone who grew up watching Knievel on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” and even viewers who don’t get nostalgic at the phrase “the agony of defeat” won’t be bored by this self-made cross between Elvis and Liberace on two wheels. But with all the great original footage available, the documentary doesn’t take any chances, relying on a talking head format that doesn’t make the stunts any less thrilling but also doesn’t sustain much tension.

The problem is that Being Evel is as much about fans as about Knievel, and vintage footage is frequently interrupted by various fans and the bespectacled sight of one of the film’s other producers, longtime fan Johnny Knoxville. It makes sense for the Jackass star to have a role in this film, as Knievel’s exploits inspired generations of reckless jackasses like Knoxville to follow in his footsteps. But with one exception, the audience watching a stunt isn’t as compelling as the stuntman himself.

That exception is the film’s most successful segment, about Knievel’s attempted jump over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in 1974. This was the height of his popularity and the most ambitious jump of his career, a mile-long crossing made in the rocket-powered X-1 Skycycle. Tens of thousands of thrill-seekers swarmed upon Idaho to watch Knievel jump, but the site became a crowd control nightmare with multiple reports of sexual assault. Event promoters resorted to hiring the Hell’s Angels for security despite Knievel’s bad history with the gang, who nevertheless barely prevented curious onlookers from tumbling over the cliff to see what happened to their hero.

Knievel was a fast-talker, which came in handy in his first professional success as an insurance salesman. He may not have been evil, but Hamilton isn’t the first to paint a picture of the daredevil as a red, white and blue lout. His children and ex-wife are among the many interview subjects who point out that Knievel had a volatile temper, cheated on his wife and put his family through hell all in the name of showmanship.

The biopic script read at gunpoint was written by John Milius, who went on to write the screenplays for Apocalypse Now! and Conan the Barbarian. Evel hated the movie, but adapted lines from the film when he talked to the press—anything to perpetuate his own myth. Though Knievel died in 2007, the mythmaking continues; Junge’s subjects, despite their misgivings about the person, depict Knievel as the kind of American hero that the nation was looking for in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. His appeal was probably much simpler than that. The flamboyant star tapped the human urge to watch an accident happen. And Junge, perhaps appallingly, gives this to his audience quickly, starting his film with a “Tonight Show” appearance on which Johnny Carson shows slow-motion footage of Knievel tumbling after a botched leap over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. Like an exploitive news report, this footage is repeated several times throughout the film. Knievel would probably have wanted it that way.

  • A LEGO Brickumentary

    Brickumentary is both interesting and informative as well as being fun. …
  • Holy Hell! A.I. Artificial Intelligence turns 20

    Despite its title, A.I. Artificial Intelligence delves deeply into what it means to be hum…
  • The Swordsman

    The Swordsman is not a new Zatoichi film, but it’s the next best thing: a stark climb of a…
  • Blithe Spirit

    Following in the footsteps of David Lean’s 1945 adaptation, Hall and company keep their ta…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Various Artists: Hallo Zayaendo

Created as a souvenir among friends, it reveals a world that may not resonate as it does f…