There truly wasn’t anyone like Evel Knievel. His motorcycle was his weapon, but what did he combat? Gravity, I suppose. For what purpose? Political? Maybe. Celebrity, fame, and fortune? Probably. Destrudo? Definitely.

Even the name was a creation, a gift from a punny policeman that Knievel modified, turning “evil” into “Evel” so that he sounded dangerous but not devilish. He made himself into an American icon, donning red, white, and blue and, as the song goes, “stars and stripes too.” I don’t know if anyone ever asked for an Evel Knievel or need one, but that is beyond the point. As a relative of Knievel, Congressman Pat Williams says, “He captured what America needed. He came along at the right time.”

Being Evel is a warts and all look at the famous daredevil directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian Daniel Junge and edited by longtime collaborator Davis Coombe (the two wrote the script together). The movie’s master of ceremonies, Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame), provides the framing device and the most succinct description of Knievel’s life: “Fast, faster, and disaster.”

Being Evel is much more than a typical talking-heads documentary about the life and times of a man. Junge and Coombe contextualize Knievel’s life and accomplishments as something that grew out of Americans’ need for the good guy in white, the fearless rider defying death. At first, Knievel knew what he was doing, but along the way, he lost sight of what he was trying to accomplish and was swallowed by his own myth, turning nasty and violent towards those that help build the man who was Evel. Disaster indeed.

Yet, what makes Being Evel so fascinating is not just the subject—which is endlessly fascinating—but the fact that Knievel virtually came out of nowhere and became the torch-bearer of a not-yet-fashioned empire, one that gains more and more legitimacy each year. Action sports, extreme sports, even stunt shows like Jackass have evolved into something incredibly profitable and legitimate; something young athletes aspire to. The motorcycles are lighter, better designed, and can do much more than Knievel’s 500 lb. off-the-floor Harley-Davidson, but Knievel remains both the icon and the pinnacle. Clad in white, with stars and stripes, Knievel defied gravity and laughed in Death’s face. Gravity won many of those battles, and death won the war, but the icon seems as relevant now as it was then.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Being Evel (2015)
Directed by: Daniel Junge
Written by: Daniel Junge, Davis Coombe
Produced by: Matt Hoffman, Daniel Junge, Brendan Kiernan, Johnny Knoxville, Justin Moore-Lewy, Jeff Tremaine
Gravitas Ventures, Not Rated, Running time 100 minutes, Opens August 21, 2015