It can be difficult for biographical film, documentary or otherwise, to be all-encompassing without sacrificing its point or perspective. However, “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” not only feels complete in its detailed telling, but avoids the pitfalls of both hagiography — despite limiting its interviews to a tight-knit circle — and of cheap inspiration porn. It helps that directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui assume the audience has some amount of familiarity with Christopher Reeve, the iconic Superman star who would go on to be paralyzed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident in 1995, so they structure their narrative around these two vital flashpoints in the actor’s life, while allowing his family and friends (including stars like Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon) to fill in the gaps with moving personal anecdotes.
The film is, on its surface, stylistically typical of a standard-issue documentary, with sit-down interviews interspersed with archival footage — but it makes ingenious use of home videos and scenes from throughout Reeve’s career. Using audio interviews from the late actor himself (and testimonials from his now-adult children), Bonhôte and Ettedgui introduce a visceral spark into the picture. They re-contextualize existing scenes — whether from his “Superman: The Movie” heyday, or his post-accident role in a remake of “Rear Window” — to bring to life many of his highs and lows, as though they were crafting a narrative drama with Reeve himself in the central role.
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This adherence to dramatic traditions works to the movie’s benefit in numerous other ways. For one thing, it affords the filmmakers the room to map Reeve’s story onto a Shakespearean tale of rise and fall (and a Hollywood story of rising again), with candid interviews that paint a remarkably multifaceted picture of a celebrity who was, generally speaking, well-liked. For another, making “Super/Man” with one eye towards narrative fiction also turns it into something of an ensemble piece. Reeve may be the title “character” but equally important to this story — in ostensibly “supporting” roles — are his wife Dana, and his long-time friend and former roommate, the actor-comedian Robin Williams. As much as it’s a movie about one man’s struggle, it’s a family drama too, and the way his paralysis shifts their dynamic over the years is enrapturing to watch.
The film also delves, on occasion, into abstraction as a means of creating mood, constantly returning to the motif of a chiseled obsidian statue of Reeve floating through space in some distant, fantastical galaxy. Whether this is an image of Reeve or Superman isn’t always clear — in fact, it’s occasionally afflicted by glowing green Kryptonite when the story delves into difficult territory — but this overlap between actor and character is vital to the movie’s telling. As an off-off-Broadway actor plucked from obscurity and launched into the superhero stratosphere, Reeve became practically synonymous with Superman, and though his story is one of a husband and father (and thus, equally about his wife and children), it also existed in the public eye.
Delving into everything from his artistry and personal ethos, to his upbringing and his commitment issues, and eventually, to his disability activism — whose strengths and flaws are both framed as extensions of his personal outlook — “Super/Man” casts a wide net over the tale of a cultural icon. And yet, it never wavers in its keen focus on his humanity, and his many complications. At a mere 104 minutes in length, it succeeds in familiarizing us with not only Reeve’s entire life, but the lives he touched, along with the radiance he brought to the screen, and how this manifested at home. It’s as multitudinous as the man himself, moving back and forth in time to open up new perspectives and detours about him, in ways that come achingly close to making him seem as though he were still here.
“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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