Touch of Evel

Is it in honor of its subject that the high-flying doc Being Evel indulges so often in hilarious overstatement? “He opened the door and invited people to buy a ticket to watch truth,” one talking head insists, somehow keeping his face straight. Another speaks of how, in the early 1970s, America had lost itself. But: “Along came this kid from Butte, Montana, who showed us who we were and who we wanted to be again.” That comes not too long after a familiar montage of that stubbed-out, hungover decade: the strafing of Cambodia, “I am not a crook” and all the rest.

The thing we wanted to be, apparently, to get over all that? A motorcycle madman whose cape and spangles shone almost as bright as his genius for promotion.

The filmmakers are right that Evel Knievel was a marvel, a thrill, a dream-along distraction—millions around the world have gotten off imagining what it would be like to power that Harley over a ramp and scrape against the floor of heaven. But to argue that this mean sumbitch somehow guided us? That our national character was salved by the way this mine-town hothead dared to look Death in the eye—and make a buck off it? That's as world-class foolhardy as Knievel's promise to launch himself across Idaho's Snake River Canyon—fortunately, the movie doesn't get too busted up when it crashes back to earth.

Knievel himself was a cannier mythologizer than Being Evel's interviewees, which include wives, sons, members of his crews, Wide World of Sports staffers, Evel Knievel star George Hamilton, the manager/biographer he once hospitalized with an aluminum bat, and the poor motorcycle champ who won the big race that was supposed to be the main draw of the ABC broadcast that introduced most Americans to Knievel's bus-jumping ways. (That guy laments that nobody remembers his victory.) In electric vintage footage, Being Evel shows us Knievel drawling defensive tough-guy poetry: “When you head down that long white line, you better have made your peace with God, and you better know what you're doing, because a conman ain't gonna get there.” Better still is a line we get secondhand, one that comes closer to the truth of why Knievel commanded such attention, drawing 30,000 hell-raisers to his doomed Snake Canyon stunt: “He used to say, 'Nobody wants to see me die—but they don't want to miss it if I do.'”

That holds true for his crashes as well. You'll wince at them in Being Evel, especially the long slow-motion wipeout in which, after flopping and tumbling along, he's clobbered, Looney Tunes-style, by his own motorcycle. The film, directed by Daniel Junge, offers footage that justifies much of the Knievel folklore. Junge builds up furious suspense and momentum, especially in the run-up to Snake Canyon, when Knievel's team's test-jumps kept failing, Knievel started cursing out the press, and the crowd camping out in the desert so they didn't miss it turned ugly. We're told they lit outhouses on fire after turning over a beer truck and shooting the locks off the door. The tuba player from a high-school marching band recalls having beer cans and a bra stuffed into the bell of his horn; Knievel's crew members describe hearing at night the cries of women being raped.

Whether that's credible the film never makes clear. Knievel's legend invites overstatement, and the talking heads happily oblige. What is clear: that Knievel's team intentionally sabotaged their first test run, to gin up anticipation, but then couldn't make it work in their second, secret attempt. The third go is the famous one, and we see Knievel just before it, both a showman and a man condemned.

Sheldon Saltman, the manager Knievel later went to jail for beating, plays back tape recordings of the stuntman hero spitting insults in the days before that jump: “If God ever gives the world an enema, he'll stick the tube in his ass to start it.” The filmmakers rubber-stamp some aspects of his legend, but they don't shy away from Knievel's cruelty and vanity. In his last years, long after his retirement from stunts, he tendered some, as he fought the pain that is a consequence of a lifetime of broken bones and well-paid crashing. His first wife recalls that, on his deathbed, he finally said, “I'm sorry”—an apology that came much too late. Her reason for leaving him, years earlier, as he ran around with a girlfriend: “I didn't like him.”

He may not be likable, but he remains fascinating. The film is on firm ground when examining Knievel's actual measurable impact: the action/extreme sports that have flourished since his retirement. Testifying to the power of Knievel's legend are Johnny Knoxville (also a producer), Seth Enslow and Robbie Maddison. Being Evel showcases some of the best of their stunts and spills, many of them glorious and imaginative—but, somehow, they don't clutch the heart or seize the imagination the way Knievel's did. They're grand to behold, but you don't feel as if you can't miss them.

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