What to Watch Verdict
Directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo craft a thoughtful portrait of the actor and movie star that only generates more intrigue.
* Footage of Kilmer's time on 'Top Gun,' 'Batman Forever' and more offers new dimensions to the work that he did as his career grew.
* Heartbreaking details from his childhood recontextualize his creative goals and some of the conflicts that would come to define his public persona.
* With so much footage to cull from, it's hard not to want more — about all of his films — to offer an intimate look at their productions, much less his process.
Over the last four decades, Val Kilmer has at various times possessed one of the most recognizable faces in the world. His film and theater work has been seen by millions of people. He’s probably been interviewed hundreds of times, if not thousands. And yet, audiences have almost certainly never seen him like he appears in the new documentary Val.
Since battling throat cancer in 2017, he has largely remained out of the spotlight except for a handful of low-profile film projects, but it’s not his changed appearance that he exposes here for directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo. Rather, Kilmer gives them access to a massive library of home video footage that he's captured throughout his life, to present a uniquely intimate, honest and unguarded look at his life and career. Not unlike the documentary, Beastie Boys Story, the film chronicles a history that’s well known with behind-the-scenes stories and details that are not. In the process, it humanizes Kilmer even as it deepens his mystique as a performer.
The theme that quickly emerges is a deeply relatable one. Kilmer would repeatedly achieve his dreams, but either in ways that he least expected or at great cost. Some astonishing footage from his childhood days captures him moviemaking with his inventive younger brother Wesley (who drowned at 15 during an epileptic seizure). It shows rehearsals and performances at Juilliard where, at the time, he was the youngest student ever admitted for instruction and auditions he recorded that won him roles in films directed by his heroes, like Stanley Kubrick. Though it’s dispiriting to hear him denigrate Top Secret!, his (still hilarious) first film, he juxtaposes this early success with the mesmerizing theater work of his future wife Joanne Whalley which more closely resembled the serious fare he aspired to do. Top Gun was a film he wanted to turn down, but it gave him the chance to try out method-acting in a blockbuster and made him a household name almost as quickly as it did Tom Cruise.
Given the volume of material that Kilmer collected over the years — evidently filming with a personal camcorder on every film he made — it’s hard not to want to see more footage of him, say, hanging out with Cruise on Top Gun, or perhaps falling in love with Whalley while they shot Willow. But Kilmer announces his intentions from the beginning to explore the life of an actor, not chronicle the rise of a movie star and he explores each new opportunity with an artist’s eye. On The Doors, for example, there’s tons of footage of him rehearsing in anticipation of playing frontman Jim Morrison. He frames his Batman excursion semi-tragically as the fulfillment of “every little boy’s dream” to play the superhero —only to quickly discover that the limitations of the suit and the requirements of the role reduced him to an action figure in a giant playset.
In retrospect, you realize that it wasn’t an act of bravery or even principle, to turn down an offer to reprise the Caped Crusader a second time, but rather one of self-preservation. His career had gotten bigger than his opportunities to do what he truly loved — to act — and so he pivoted to Michael Mann’s Heat and went to work with his idol Marlon Brando on The Island of Dr. Moreau. That film’s turbulent production has already been covered — including in a documentary of its own — but it’s fascinating watching a first-person account from Kilmer as he butts heads with replacement director John Frankenheimer and bonds with Brando and David Thewlis. This is also where the film explores (if it doesn’t fully answer) Kilmer’s developing reputation for being demanding, difficult and confrontational. There’s a montage of interviews with a variety of industry tastemakers, including Oprah Winfrey, where they interrogate him about his behavior, but the diplomatic answers he gives don’t provide new context. And even if he communicates easygoing camaraderie in his documentary footage, it seems clear that at some level he was willing to sacrifice on-set harmony in order to get what he needed to play each role.
Then of course, there’s his family life, both as a child of divorce, and eventually, a divorcee with two children whom he’s obviously very close with. These events become more of the focus towards the end of the film, not least because he’d returned to the stage and of course had to deal with his cancer scare.
It’s difficult to know if Val is meant to honor the body of work he’s created or to acknowledge how far he’s fallen professionally. You can’t help but feel like he deserves more than to be autographing action figures in assembly-line sessions at Comic-Con until his handlers have to smuggle him out of the building in a wheelchair covered in a blanket.
But then again, it’s moments like those that underscore how human the people are that we idolize as movie stars. It seems relevant that one of the roles he played in recent years that was meaningful to him was in Citizen Twain — based on a play he wrote about author and humorist Mark Twain. This documentary indicates that he’s been given a necessary dose of humility and developed a healthy sense of humor. Directors Scott and Poo touch on both the ups and downs that keep him young, excited and grateful.
Undoubtedly, a documentary that wasn’t made with his own camera might have dug a little deeper into some of the choices along the way, but Val is uniquely intimate and uncommonly honest, offering what ultimately becomes less of a document of his career than a mesmerizing portrait of his humanity.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.