In many ways, Chris Smith’s newest documentary “Sr.” pulls at you from one emotional beat to the next. Documenting an individual with a rich history like Robert Downey Sr. – an acclaimed independent director of films likes “Putney Swope,” “Greaser’s Palace,” and “Chafed Elbows,” while also being the father of eventual megastar Robert Downey Jr., feels like quite the undertaking. The filmmaker and his team dedicate an ample set of time towards Downey Sr.’s deep filmography and his personal anecdotes of developing films during the 1960s and 70s.
But it’s his relationship with his son that reigns supreme in “Sr.” because, as the documentary eventually cements in your mind, if the two of these highly successful and complicated people didn’t set out to make this emotionally-mining piece of art, there’s a chance they never come to terms with how to remember one another.
Downey Jr. and Smith’s documentary starts small – a reference point towards Downey Jr.’s father in the inevitable case that Downey Sr. passes away soon without a personal film to reflect upon. Downey Sr. wasn’t one to turn the camera on himself; he liked to document real, raw emotion and people from afar. He didn’t intrude and command the frame like more empirical filmmakers. All of this rings true quite earnestly in “Sr.”
But when the film shifts and it’s understood that Downey Sr. is coming towards the end of his life after a tough battle with Parkinson’s disease, “Sr.” not only further cements itself as one of the great documentaries of the year, it begins to separate itself from many of the fictional works released as of late as well.
Robert Downey Jr. has lived his life in the spotlight. Between his continuous battles with substance abuse and his donning of the Iron Man costume, Downey Jr. has been a public figure since he was a child. He was destined to have an elongated career in the film industry, but it’s been rare that he’s pulled back the curtains as far as he does in “Sr.”
Every foundational element of “Sr.” works wonderfully. It serves as an informative appetizer into Robert Downey Sr.’s film archives. It illustrates the years of a father and son who’ve both endured many hardships and trials during their very public lives. It poignantly depicts Robert Downey Jr. coming to grips with the fading away of his father – a moment of the film that truly digs deep into the personal emotions of a man that spent a decade being incredibly emotionless behind a metal suit.
I’ve knocked on Netflix documentaries for being consistently over-polished and clean, and “Sr.” breaks that mold almost entirely. It’s unbelievably honest about the issues each of the Downey family members have had in the past, while also keeping a tight lens on the ongoing health of both individuals. There haven’t been many families that hand over their entire lives to be in front of the camera, but until his last days on Earth, Downey Sr. was committed to documenting first and reflecting later.
In a year that’s been boiling with wonderful and riveting documentary work, “Sr.” stands near the top. Few films dig this deep and feel this honest. It acts as a fly on the wall for one of the industry’s most prestigious families, and few films feel as authentic as “Sr.” does. It’s sincere as hell – in the best possible way. As the year begins to wind down, I’ve started to piece together where some films rank for me, and “Sr.” is certainly sitting with some of the best.
As a documentary, “Sr.” cuts deeper than many films dream of doing. It’s an excellent inside look at the life of Robert Downey Sr., while also being an emotionally riveting reflection piece for Robert Downey Jr. Few films deliver this amount of insight into individuals at this level of fame and intrigue, and “Sr.” does not disappoint in the slightest. It’s touching and earnest, and one of the best documentaries of the year.