“You’re still you and I love you.” Twenty years ago, the actor famous for portraying the ultimate comic book hero on screen passed away after slipping into a coma. Juilliard-trained and the former roommate to Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve left behind a legacy of advocacy and pushing the boundaries of what one person could do with the short time they have on this earth. He also left behind a devoted wife, Dana, and three children, who picked up the pieces of his life to continue his work on a mission to change the world.
Many of these themes are dissected in the new documentary “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” by directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. Opening with startling and energetic cuts of 1978’s “Superman,” set to the iconic John Williams score, the documentary makes a case for everyday heroic actions and encourages its audience to believe in miracles. But as insightful as the film is, it’s only as good as the subject it examines and Reeve’s personal and professional conflicts are on full display.
The entire universe knows who Superman is and why he’s the hero we all admire. His origins in comic book lore are monumental to the blockbuster climate we’ve enjoyed at the movie theater. But Reeve’s embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton, beginning in the 1970s, recharacterized the role as a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way. “Super/Man” is emotional, resilient, and inspiring, opening up private battles to the general public.
If you’re of a certain age, the image of Reeve might look different. Many remember the performer suiting up in blue tights and convincing the world that a man could fly. Some know him as a tireless advocate for the disabled community, and a human being who found himself in a wheelchair after a horrific horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed and on a ventilator at the age of 42. But to many actors, friends, and Reeve’s family, he was just Chris, a charming and witty gentle giant.
Though the film’s title suggests that audiences are in for a tale about one man’s life and journey through the darkest of days, the movie itself tells a comprehensive account of the entire Reeve family’s courage, heroism, and their strength to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles. It’s a testament to Reeve’s vision for his life, the explosive career he once experienced, and his effect on policy changes at the highest levels.
Like any good chronicle of one person, the film examines the beginnings of what made Reeve whole, including his disastrous relationship with his father, his parents’ divorce, and his own parenting styles. The film jumps around in time quite a bit, reflecting his career peak highs playing Superman in several films, starting in director Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman,” to archival footage of the Reeve family’s home movies. Further jumps show Reeve post-accident and his attempts to bring awareness to the world about a multitude of disabled issues.
No one at the time could expect a man like Reeve to become a controversial figure, especially after his accident when he became the A-list face of disability. But, many in the disabled community took issue with the actor’s intentions to one day walk again, insulted by the idea that people need to be “cured” to live a fulfilling life. Through interviews with Reeve’s three children, his first wife, former doctors, friends, and actors Jeff Daniels, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, and Glenn Close, the complete picture of who Reeve was and his dedication to better himself becomes crystal clear.
But Reeve wasn’t someone who just gave into his quadriplegia without some sort of a fight. He took roles as disabled characters post-accident, most notably in the 1998 made-for-television revival of “Rear Window,” and also created jobs for himself behind the camera as a director and producer. His activism brought him standing ovations during surprise appearances at the Academy Awards and the 1996 Democratic National Convention, the latter of which he made a speech about the importance of family values and putting disability front and center as a cause to focus on in the public’s attention.
Yet, this isn’t just Chris’s journey, as the documentary’s focus readjusts to his second wife, Dana, and her struggles in caring for her husband through sickness and health. The two started a now famous foundation to fund research to help treat several diseases. Dana’s struggles continued after her husband’s death when, in 2006, she succumbed to a heartbreaking diagnosis of lung cancer. Archival audio of Christopher and Dana Reeve serves as narration for the film’s depictions. Bonhôte and Ettedgui employ computer-generated animation of a well-sculpted superhero figure that aids in steady transitions as the figure is inflicted with green Kryptonite, Superman’s one weakness.
“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” is a film about pain and the ultimate strength of adversity as well as a tearjerker steeped in discovering who Reeve was and his experiences in straddling the line of being polarizing and inspiring simultaneously. As difficult as it was on his acting career and personal life, his 1995 accident brought his family closer together and opened the world up to understanding the challenges between hope and expectation.
Christopher Reeve once spoke about his altered point of view and the network of Hollywood actors and politicians he reached out to in order to affect change. “America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves,” he stated in one monumental speech. This documentary proves Reeve was indeed a man made of steel.
“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” is a sales title at Sundance.
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