Amid the disillusionments of the ’70s—the Vietnam War, racial strife, Watergate, lines around the block for gasoline—America needed a hero. And many, especially us kids, found one in the motorcycle daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel. Boy, did my brother and I get amped for his audacious stunts (and epic wipeouts!), from the record-breaking jump over 19 cars at Ontario Motor Speedway to the ludicrous scheme to leap the Snake River Canyon in a star-spangled rocket cycle. Only later did I learn how deeply flawed our fearless showman was.
In Being Evel, an engaging documentary, director Daniel Junge supplements a wealth of archival and press footage with recollections from spouses, kin, and business associates—including promoter Sheldon Saltman, whose 1977 memoir of touring with Knievel prompted the incensed stuntman to attack him with a baseball bat. The film gives Knievel his due, but also strips away the layers to reveal a checked-out father, a philandering husband, and a complex American icon whose identity was subsumed by his camera-ready persona.