Even in his 90s, television writer and producer Norman Lear remains a major creative force, his legacy of groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family casting a large shadow over what passes for satire in the current TV landscape. You don’t need Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You to tell you that, and indeed this lively, loving but ultimately underwhelming documentary’s largest limitation is that it doesn’t do enough to dig beneath the surface of a legend. Anybody sympathetic to Lear’s liberal politics or familiar with his artistic track record will be interested throughout, but Lear himself remains a bit out of reach, an icon presented without enough context or insight.
The film was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who have made two exceptional documentaries in recent years: 2010’s 12th and Delaware and 2012’s Detropia. (They’re probably best known for Jesus Camp, which was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar in 2007.) Norman Lear is their first nonfiction profile piece, and it suffers from a problem that bedevils plenty of films in the genre: How do you present a life-spanning overview in a way that’s not a formulaic greatest-hits package?
Their answer, unfortunately, is to try a thematic device. Early in the movie, Lear mentions that he had to grow up at an early age because of a difficult family life—his father was a criminal—but that he has nonetheless retained a childlike wonder to this day. From that tidbit, Ewing and Grady construct a motif in which we occasionally see a young boy re-creating moments from Lear’s younger years on an empty stage sparsely decorated. It’s a bold move that simply doesn’t work, pulling the viewer out of Lear’s experience and turning the attention to an awfully theatrical gimmick. That structural misstep isn’t enough to sink Norman Lear, but it does hint at the filmmakers’ larger problem, which is that they can’t quite crack their subject’s inner world in order to bring together (and make sense of) the different threads of his life.
And what a life it is. Growing up Jewish on the East Coast, Lear was taught at an early age to “be a good provider,” a lesson he learned from watching his deadbeat father go to prison, forcing the young boy to move around from family member to family member, eventually landing with his grandparents. Serving in World War II because he hated the Nazis and their anti-Semitism so profoundly, he confessed later to relishing the idea of bombing Germans—whether they were innocent or not—into oblivion. When he returned to America and became a TV joke writer, Lear developed an interest in addressing taboo topics—racism, abortion—within his comedy, making sitcoms like All in the Family and Maude not just popular but socially relevant. Then in the 1980s, he stepped away from television to become an activist, speaking out against religious conservatism and, in 2001, purchasing one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and taking it on a tour across America so that people could reflect on how this country was formed.
Simply touching on all these topics, Norman Lear has an inherent dramatic pull, and the filmmakers enlist everyone from Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal to All in the Family cast member Rob Reiner to fan George Clooney to talk about the man’s importance in television and political discourse. Set to be shown on PBS as part of its American Masters series, Norman Lear has the comfortable “He did this, then he did this, and here’s what people think of him” structure that will be familiar to viewers of the network’s documentary profiles. And there’s an educational value to what Ewing and Grady have constructed, reminding audiences that edginess, smarts and humor can coexist in popular entertainment.
But beyond that, the documentary never finds a consistent thematic through-line to their subject. Interesting kernels pop up: Lear’s long-unresolved feelings about his father; the challenges he faced trying to bring authenticity to African-American experiences in Good Times and The Jeffersons; the failure of his first marriage due to his hectic streak of hits in the 1970s. But they’re just loose strands floating in the ether of Norman Lear, provocative but not grippingly explored enough. The filmmakers have insisted that they had complete creative control and final cut on Norman Lear, and yet the movie still feels a tad too polite, which isn’t in keeping with an artist who liked pushing the envelope.
Lear is presented in bold terms in the film—as a genius, as a patriot—but there’s neither the complexity nor the greatness in Norman Lear necessary to help sell the hagiographic treatment. This film will inform younger people that Lear means a lot to large swaths of Americans who grew up watching his shows. (Jon Stewart and Amy Poehler are but two contemporary comedians who sing the man’s praises.) But it doesn’t exactly explain why—or what it was about him specifically that makes people worship him so.
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Starring: Norman Lear, Phil Rosenthal, Rob Reiner, George Clooney, Russell Simmons, John Amos
Release Date: Premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.