Nonfiction filmmaking duo Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui turned heads with their dazzling 2018 fashion doc McQueen, which gracefully walked the line between celebration and sorrow, between the public highs of a brilliant creator of wearable art and the private lows of a man plagued by insurmountable demons. They achieve a comparable balance in their moving new film, Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, between the iconic movie star and the man whose life was stalled by a tragic accident. The big difference is that unlike Alexander McQueen, Reeve did manage to overcome long days of darkness and despair, living a productive life for his remaining years.
Late in the film, footage shows President Barack Obama in 2009 signing the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, the bipartisan-supported first legislation specific to the millions of under-represented Americans living with spinal cord injuries and paralysis, named for the actor and his fellow activist wife. Reeve’s public profile enabled him to move the needle on disability awareness, starting a foundation that, since its launch in 2002, has funded medical research, professional care and rights advocacy. The film builds a persuasive case that countless people struck by paralysis are walking today because of the work he galvanized.
Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story
The Bottom Line
A powerful story of human endurance.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
Writers: Peter Ettedgui, with Otto Burnham, Ian Bonhôte
1 hour 44 minutes
Bonhôte and Ettedgui were making the Netflix doc Rising Phoenix, about the history of the Paralympic movement, when they saw footage of Reeve speaking at the 1996 event in Atlanta. That planted the idea of making a biopic about a man whose Hollywood heroism was matched by the courage and commitment he showed offscreen after the 1995 equestrian accident that almost killed him, leaving him a quadriplegic permanently dependent on a respirator to breathe.
Comparisons may be inevitable with last year’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, about another beloved screen star who followed misfortune, in that case his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis, by becoming a public crusader for research and awareness. Say what you will about the outsize role of celebrity in American life, but those voices resonate when it comes to personal experience of health conditions faced by countless people less privileged and well-positioned to advocate for themselves. They are also a magnet for philanthropic cash.
For anyone not around in 1978, it’s hard to convey the immense pop-cultural impact of Richard Donner’s Superman, which plucked the unknown Reeve from his burgeoning New York stage career to play the Man of Steel. (Producer Pierre Spengler tells amusing tales of the casting search.) Back then, superhero movies were not an epidemic but an actual event, and Reeve’s portrayal remains definitive. Following two years later, Superman II for many of us was an even better showcase for the duality Reeve brought to the roles of Superman and Clark Kent.
Just the briefest clips of him soaring through the Fortress of Solitude or swooping up to save Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane from what would be a fatal fall as John Williams’ rousing theme music revs up will warm the hearts of anyone with affection for those landmark movies. Sure, the effects are now dated, but no actor has taken flight in the red cape with the conviction of Reeve. “It’s all in the eyes,” he explains in one of many interviews excerpted.
The doc is honest about Reeve’s eventual ambivalence toward the role that defined but also pigeonholed him, with attempts to work in other genres proving commercially unsuccessful. He chafed at the contractual obligation that forced him to do the inferior third and fourth movies in the franchise. But there’s no doubt that the imprint of him as a near-invincible force for good factored into the collective shock that echoed around the world when he reappeared in public as a vulnerable man in a wheelchair.
That first occurred at the 1996 Academy Awards, less than a year after his accident; the difficult logistics of his transportation were organized in part by his close friend from Juilliard and former roommate Robin Williams and the latter’s wife at the time, Marsha Garces; they were a frequent source of support throughout his hospitalization and the tough years that followed. Actors gonna act, but the famous faces in the standing ovation at the Oscars seem genuine in conveying the love and compassion that greeted Reeve that night. It’s one of many moments in the doc that bring tears to the eyes.
Warm interviews with actor friends Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Jeff Daniels indicate the lasting bonds he formed with colleagues.
No less than the celluloid superhero, the footage and interviews here detailing what a physical man Reeve was in his downtime make for a poignant contrast. He was a passionate skier, pilot, yachtsman and of course horseback rider. The cruel irony was that he was allergic to horses but when he was cast as Vronsky in a 1985 adaptation of Anna Karenina, he insisted on taking a crash course in riding, injecting himself with antihistamines every day to overcome the allergy. The experience made him an eager convert. It took similar determination to transform himself from a bean pole to an Adonis when he landed the Superman role.
In addition to heroism in its various forms, the film’s other principal theme is family. All three of Reeve’s children — Alexandra and Matthew from his 10-year relationship with British modeling agent Gae Exton and Will from his marriage to actress-singer Dana Morosini — speak with touching candor of their father, often accompanied by lovely home-video fragments from their childhoods.
Reeve had a history of unhealthy marriages and divorce in his own upbringing, along with an emotionally distant father, so the happiness of his blended family was important to him and a major factor in pulling him out of depression. Dana treated Alexandra and Matt as friends, while to Will, they are siblings, plain and simple. Exton also remained in their lives; witnessing her choke up while recalling the way her relationship with Reeve ran its course is a wrenching moment.
There are too many of those to count in the wealth of material here, notably in intimate accounts of Reeve’s death in 2004 and Dana’s less than two years later from lung cancer, not before she had ensured that the work of their foundation would continue. The couple took on symbiotic roles in their activism, with Reeve focusing on “tomorrow’s cure” and his wife on “today’s care.”
One of the aspects that makes Super/Man so satisfying is that for a biographical film in which tragedy and loss play such a central part, it’s rich in evidence of hope and kindness, gratitude and the resilience of the human spirit. Editor Otto Burnham shifts fluidly back and forth between pre- and post-accident life chapters, with Ilan Eshkeri’s elegant score complementing rather than having to coax out the poignancy.
Like the imaginative digital animation that punctuated McQueen, based around the designer’s signature skull motif, a similarly beautiful CG flourish is used to mark transitions here. The main image shows a stone sculpture of a naked Reeve free-floating in an infinite universe, with cracks appearing in the parts of his body corresponding to his injuries, emitting a glittering green light. As the extent of his paralysis becomes clear and false hopes of physical recovery dissolve, that green light turns into the jagged crystals of Kryptonite, erupting from his flesh. It seems to symbolize a man broken and yet still endowed with extraordinary strength, an impression reinforced long after his death in this deeply affecting film.