SUPER/MAN: THE CHRISTOPHER REEVE STORY
YEAR: 2024 / COUNTRY: UNITED KINGDOM & UNITED STATES / LANGUAGE: ENGLISH / RUN TIME: 106 MIN
Contributors: Matthew Reeve, Alexandra Reeve, William Reeve
Director(s): Ian Bonhote, Peter Ettedgui
Moving backward and forward in time, filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui expertly weave together a dual narrative exploring the life-changing impact of two pivotal moments in Christopher Reeve's career: being cast in 1978's Superman and becoming paralyzed in 1995. Decades before superheroes took over the cinemas, Reeve made the world believe a man could fly; his accident brought worldwide awareness of disability. In Super/Man, Reeve's family and close confidantes demonstrate remarkable candor in their reflections on life before and after the accident. The result is a deeply moving film foregrounding the man behind Superman — not a hagiography, but a full-fledged portrait that encompasses both the soaring heights and the dark depths of Reeve's journey.
Written By Darren Zakus
Rating: 5 out of 5
Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story captures the hero that Christopher Reeve was both on screen and as an ordinary man in a powerful documentary that pays tribute to the beloved movie star he was and the change he and his family made in the world, resulting in one of the best documentaries of the decade!
Back in 1978, one man showed audiences that a man could fly, and it changed blockbusters forever. Superman not only introduced audiences to the superhero genre, but it made Christopher Reeve an overnight worldwide celebrity for his portrayal of the Man of Steel. His life changed overnight, and then again in 1995 after his accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. While it seemed like a life sentence, it was actually a start to an amazing new chapter in his life as he continued to prove himself a hero in advocating for disabled people. While he sadly passed away twenty years ago this October, Reeve’s life is being immortalized in the new documentary Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story that tells his life story, both as a Hollywood star and a family man, in one of the most beautiful, emotional and incredible documentaries that I have ever seen that will not leave a single dry eye in the audience.
Reeve’s story is told through a combination of archival footage of his performances and his interviews, current interviews with his three children, his ex-partner and his close friends including Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams through historical footage; and the narration that Reeve recorded for his memoir. And of course, there is lots of footage from the Superman films and use of John William’s iconic musical score from the film as Superman was an integral part of Reeve’s public image, which is the perfect soundtrack for a real life hero like Reeve. It provides a personal account of Reeve as an individual, giving us a deep look at the man behind the headlines, while allowing his own voice to tell his story which is a true gift that most documentary subjects are unable to do after they pass. The interviews with his children are deeply personal, emotional and moving, especially the ones with his youngest son Will Reeve who was too young when his father both had his accident and passed away.
Throughout the film, it truly feels like you are being invited into the Reeve’s family and are treated to intimate access to their lives. The love that he shared with both his ex-partner Gae Exton and their close relationship after their separation, the love he had for his wife Dana, and the insistence to be part of his children’s life is highlighted, allowing Reeve’s values to shine bright. Because of this nature, he was incredibly well respected not only throughout Hollywood by his peers, but on a world stage that allowed him to become a prominent figure in the furtherance of rights for disabled people in the political realm. Of everything learnt about his family and relationships, the most surprising revelations during the interviews with his friends is learning how close he and Williams were, having roomed together starting off as actors in New York in the 1970s and being as close as brothers. It confirms the audience’s image of both men that we developed from watching them both on screen, but it is Close remarking that if Reeve hadn’t died so young that we would probably still have Williams with us today that rips your heart in half.
Instead of following Reeve’s life chronologically throughout the documentary, writers and directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui start the film in the middle of Reeve’s story with the accident, then playing out his life in two separate times lines: his life before the accident and his life after the accident. By doing so, they allow thematic parallels to be drawn between different times in his life that would not have been as easily highlighted had it been told chronologically. It plays into a line from Reeve’s memory which closes out the film perfectly: not forgetting his past but presenting his life as one continuous life as he described it in his memoir.
With the dual timelines at play throughout the film, never for a second is Reeve’s strength after his accident not highlighted. Whether it be his determination to learn to breathe without a ventilator, not missing out on his children’s lives, his appearance at the Academy Awards a mere ten months after his accident, or his return to acting and beginning a directing career, the documentary highlights that Reeve’s was not going to let his disability prevent him from continuing his life. At the same time, it highlights the political and charitable work that he began in the name of research into spinal cord injuries and advocating for rights for disabled persons. This work, which would go on to be the defining work of Reeve’s life was continued by his wife, and today by his three children, making this documentary not only about Reeve, but the incredible work his entire family has done in his name.
From a directorial perspective, the documentary is impeccably crafted. The editing is incredible, seamlessly blending the archival footage, interviews, family videos and the statue in outer space animation Bonhôte and Ettedgui created for the film together to ensure that the pacing never for a second lags. The result is that it makes it feel like you spend an entire lifetime with Reeve and his family in a mere matter of the film’s one hundred and four minute runtime, allowing the documentary to become an all encompassing experience for the audience.
Every aspect of the documentary works in tandem to pay tribute to Reeve’s incredible legacy he left on our world, framing the film as Reeve’s origin story, and it’s a powerful experience to watch this film. You will be choking back tears for the entire film, crying at many moments throughout as this an emotional tribute not only to Reeve’s as an individual or an actor, but his strength after his accident in trying to improve the lives of those living with disabilities in the United States. It not only captures his celebrity status and how he inspired audiences with his heroic actions on screen, but the way his efforts to improve the quality of life for disabled individuals changed the lives of thousands of people and inspired them. Bonhôte and Ettedgui have shown that Reeve was too an ordinary man, finding his internal strength and channeling it to become a hero after his accident, re-harnessing the heroic nature, power and strength of Superman that he portrayed on screen for years. In short, it’s an incredibly beautiful film, and it has been years since I have cried that hard in a film and felt such admiration for what I was watching on screen.
I’m not normally one for documentaries, but ever since this one was announced for the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, I knew this was one film I could not miss. My expectations were sky high, and just like Superman himself, the film exceeded all expectations and delivered a truly triumphant and marvelous film that resonated on an emotional level with me that very few films ever had before. With the wonderful writing and direction of Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story flies higher than any other film with a heroic tribute to Christopher Reeve thanks to the beautiful and moving interviews with his friends and family, delivering a cinematic experience like no other that is not only unmatched by any other film I have seen this year at the Sundance Film Festival, but is destined to forever be one of my favourite documentaries!