How rich is it for Geraldo Rivera, caught just last April telling Baltimore protestors that they’re more of a disruption than their violent police, to tell us what distrust of authority in America feels like? This self-righteousness presents itself in his talking-head appearance for Being Evel and then zips away for another distraction to take its place, as is the norm in this Sydney Film Festival’s resident pep-rally doco. In portraying Knievel as an idealist antidote to the paranoia of the 70s, as Rivera does, it has all the bells and whistles to be seen in the modern crowd-pleasing digest, complete with a tweening-animated opening credits sequence and an interview editing style no more distinguished or subtle than an episode of MasterChef. Though it purports to prove the way he reaffirmed the American spirit, it’s more keen to reminisce about the good vibes and merchandise that status moved, and winds up being barely more than shallow adulation.
After a prologue where Johnny Knoxville, one of the film’s producers, kindly saves us the trouble of being shown how interesting Knievel’s life story is by just telling us as much, it begins proper by documenting Robert Knievel’s rough-and-tumble upbringing in Butte, Montana, with the assistance of a boatload of stock footage. A lot of mention is made of the mischief he got up to here, whether it’s challenging an elite hockey team to play his semi-pro squad or kidnapping his bride-to-be, Linda Joan Bork, and it is always tossed away and moved on from with a glib one-liner (“I dunno why he rode around on two wheels,” chuckles one former aquaintance. “He only ever used one!”). Through the whole story, there is not a single key turn that the film won’t have a vox popper blatantly shout out. It gets most egregious when Knoxville does so as the film’s not-so-wise sage, popping in to spout life facts like his amateur biographer. His producer credit might be fitting given that Knievel paved the way for televised stunts like what Jackass peddled in, but his interview and the ham-fisted metaphors therein are much less so.
As the film moves into his stunt-jumping career, where he starts stirring up media attention and selling an image that catapulted ABC’s Wide World of Sports program into the record books, it becomes clear from archival materials alone that he was an impressive self-salesman, and that director Daniel Junge is only interested in chowing down on that image further. That’s not to say that the film completely shies away from the negligible moments of Knievel’s time in the national spotlight, but it really only focusses on them out of necessity. There would be no getting away from his harrumphing show to reporters at his infamous Snake River Canyon rocket jump, nor his blithe frontier-justice attitude to imprisonment after beating up his biographer with a baseball bat, and certainly not the gaudy clothes and furnishings that he spent his millions on, all of which are sights to see (on Youtube). Rather than tear at such holes in his veneer, it opts to cover them up with whatever goofy music1 and one-liners it can find, which at its worst involves laughing along at his employment of an intentionally incompetent dwarf-Knievel at his early shows and using nightmare stories about the abusive hippy commune that gathered at Snake River to pad out the the runtime. It doesn’t have much to say about the implications of Knievel’s consumer-packaged patriotism, but it sure does love the cool toys that came out of it.
Through yet more too-brief testimonies, ranging from family and friends to Hollywood counterpart George Hamilton and extreme-sports descendants like Tony Hawk and Robbie Maddison, it ambles merrily past the complication of worshipping a violent Catholic adulterer and celebrates him regardless. “We all need our heroes,” Knoxville says, his words dripping with the defensiveness of a Facebook friend propping up a defamed celebrity, and it’s enough to make your lip curl.