Though posed as a documentary, SR. is actually a love story between two generations that turns into an emotional farewell for its antiestablishment subject.
Since taking on the mantle of Iron Man in 2008, Robert Downey Jr. cemented himself as a mainstay in mainstream culture. RDJ’s origin in the entertainment industry stems from his underground filmmaker father, Robert Downey Sr. In a new revealing documentary by Chris Smith, the older Downey has been bestowed the deserved credit for his unconventional filmmaking. Before the world knew Downey Jr., Downey Sr. was a big name in the ‘60s New York underground filmmaking scene known for going to extremes. His breakout film was a satire called Putney Swope, which literally gave the finger to the establishment.
When the camera came rolling to capture the filmmaker, he was not interested in his life story being told by anyone, including his son, so they reached a compromise. He would shoot his own version of the doc while the main version was happening. Multiple scenes take place of Sr. directing Chris Smith on where to shoot and frame. This story structure fits perfectly with the essence of the subject who spent his years breaking rules. Because of Sr.’s intervention, there is a loose structure of a traditional nonfiction story mixed with his own footage.
The origins of Sr.’s career as a filmmaker came from an army plane crash which led to being thrown into a stockade where he passed time by writing, leading to his life behind the camera. There are moments where instead of talking about himself, he fills in slots with shots of ducks and landscapes. Audiences also get to see Sr. editing the footage he shot adding a behind-the-scenes layer that feels very meta. By each party taking their own process for the direction of this film, they are able to come together for one final film that brings energy to the elder Downey and cleansing for the younger.
On top of the conversation and interview clips, Sr.’s movies are shown to give the viewer an idea of the outside of Hollywood, an avant-garde era during which he operated. Once Downey’s career takes off, a more cohesive narrative starts to form around how his success leads to other opportunities. The family moves to the West Coast where drugs are introduced, marriages are broken, and rehabilitation takes place.
The main theme coursing through the film’s DNA is family. The documentary splits from a portrait of an artist into a story of two generations of men. Covid strikes filming, pulling the father-son duo apart on opposite coasts left to do the documentary through phone calls and Zoom. At this same time, Parkinson’s disease is starting to take over the elder Downey adding to a narrative of declining health. As the two talk through the phone, the conversations start to become more honest and center on the effects of Sr.’s lifestyle on Jr.’s adolescence. Jr. has had a magnificent comeback with achievements that outweigh his youthful years, but he uses this platform to finally open up about it with his father. His father takes responsibility and the audience is able to see how both have put in the effort to repair their relationship. Seeing how his father cleaned up and tried to help his son with his own struggles was moving.
Fast forward and Jr. takes his youngest son to visit Sr., turning into a very vulnerable moment shared between the major movie star and his dying father. The last moments of the documentary make you feel like you have been hit by a bus of emotion. Never do the actions of this documentary feel performative; Downey Jr. is trusting of his audience while also respecting his father during this time. Both father and son know time is running out as the younger Downey acknowledges that this isn’t a story about them, but a story about life and death. It was beautiful to see all these moments over the last three years captured into one vulnerable documentary showing a side of a popular actor that has not been seen. Audiences get to tear up over watching their last hangout with a camera between the two to capture a perfect memory as they say goodbye.
Downey Jr. starts the film by saying that this is an exercise in trying to understand his father, and by the end he finally achieves that understanding of knowing who his father was.
Should be Considered: Best Documentary
Where to Watch: Netflix
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher