On the surface, it’s easy to draw a line and separate Christopher Reeve’s life into two distinct eras. On one side, you have a man who was flying high, who became a major superstar portraying one of the greatest on-screen superheroes, Superman. The other side emerges 17 years later, when Reeve was thrown from his horse and paralyzed from the neck down, an accident that required him to use a ventilator for the rest of his life.
It’s an easy distinction to make, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of a complex life.
As “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” played to its first audience in a private screening at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, it became clear that Reeve himself did not use the accident as a marker of time. Yes, it changed him, both physically and emotionally. But it also inspired him to mine lessons from his past to help build his present.
That through line was a major draw for directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui in bringing Reeve’s life to the big screen. The actor “had the gig of his life” as Superman, Bonhôte told the Deseret News ahead of the film’s first screening. But it’s a role Reeve ultimately tried to run away from. He didn’t want to be simplified to one character, and wanted to reinvent himself as an actor. Following his accident, Reeve underwent a different kind of reinvention — one that drew on the lessons of his acting career.
“When he had the accident, he actually was on the floor, had to learn to speak again, couldn’t do anything on this own,” Bonhôte told the Deseret News. “And he harnessed the power of Superman.”
Guided with remarkable vulnerability by Reeve’s three children, “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” — which comes ahead of the 20th anniversary of their father’s death at the age of 52 — chronicles the ups and downs of the actor’s life. It draws from raw interviews with Reeve’s children, archives and home videos to show how he went from being a relative unknown to an on-screen superhero to a real-life hero as he became a public face for disability research and activism.
But some of the documentary’s most moving moments come from the glimpses we get into Reeve’s personal life — reflections from his children and home videos of his wife, the late Dana Reeve, whose love and care for her husband during the last nine years of his life embody what it means to be a hero.
“We wanted this project to be the definitive story of our dad’s life, and that requires an emotional ride,” Will Reeve, Christopher Reeve’s youngest child, told the Deseret News ahead of the film’s premiere. “And we were prepared for it, as much as one can be.”
People in the film industry have approached Reeve’s children — Matt, Alexandra and Will — in the past with a desire to tell their father’s story. But, as Alexandra Reeve said during the post-screening Q&A, going through with a project like this is “the biggest trust exercise you could do.”
It took a while for all three of Reeve’s children to get to the point where they could open themselves up. It involved “reliving a lot of trauma and reliving a lot of happiness,” Will Reeve said. But as the 20th anniversary of their father’s death approaches, the timing felt right. And they believed that the two directors on board for the project — the duo behind “Rising Phoenix,” the 2020 documentary about Paralympic athletes — were the right ones for the job. Bonhôte and Ettedgui “quickly became part of the family,” Alexandra Reeve said.
The directors and Reeve’s family shared several hugs onstage following the screening, an indication of the bond that was formed as they pieced together Reeve’s story through hours and hours of interviews and archival footage.
“There’s a way to tell this story ... and it matters to show the valleys as well as the hilltops,” Alexandra Reeve said during the Q&A. “It matters to show that it was hard sometimes but that there was overwhelming joy at the same time. It mattered to us that this was an authentic film, that this wasn’t shown through rose-colored glasses.”
The Christopher Reeve story
“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” isn’t a hagiography. It delves into Reeve’s fractured relationship with his father, who didn’t always approve of his son’s career (his initial joy over Reeve landing the role of Superman apparently stemmed from the misconception that his son would be starring in the George Bernard Shaw play “Man and Superman”).
Reeve’s parents divorced when he was young, and the absence of a successful relationship in his life led to commitment issues. He never married Gae Exton, his longtime partner and the mother of his two oldest children, Matt and Alexandra. In the documentary, Exton reflects on Reeve ending their relationship, and her pain is visceral. At one point, Matt recalls how his father went on a skiing trip the day after he was born.
As the oldest child, Matt’s memories of his father before the accident are strong (the youngest, Will, celebrated his third birthday just a few weeks after his father’s accident). In “Super/Man,” Matt gets emotional as he recalls his father turning around to say goodbye before heading out to a horse-riding competition over the weekend. It would be the last time he saw his father on his feet.
Coming home from the hospital was a struggle for Reeve, who was surrounded by things he used to do that could now only be a part of his past. It was like going from a participant to an observer. But, as all three of his children attest in the documentary, their father was still very much present in their lives.
“We were forced to spend our time together in a completely different way than we had done before, and it was a way that facilitated more in-depth conversation,” Matt Reeve told the Deseret News. “Anyone who goes through multiple near-death experiences, which he did and went through one major one, ... is obviously changed and affected by that. So he was changed. I think how he viewed what’s important and what mattered to him greatly changed.”
Reeve managed to teach his son, Will, how to ride a bike just by talking him through it. The activism he had engaged in beginning in the late 1980s expanded to help make strides in spinal cord injury and stem cell research through public appearances and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He returned to the television and film industry following the accident — both as an actor and director. And years after his accident — and to the amazement of doctors — he was able to regain some movement.
In his final nine years, Reeve lived 10 people’s lives, Bonhôte told the Deseret News. And much of that superhero power and determination stemmed from the everyday heroes who surrounded him.
Reeve’s friendship with late actor Robin Williams is a recurring — and really moving — theme throughout “Super/Man.” The pair first met as classmates at The Juilliard School. Williams was one of the first people who visited Reeve in the hospital following the accident, and he pulled a prank on Reeve by posing as his doctor. It was one of the first times Reeve laughed since his injury, and the realization that he could still laugh gave him hope.
In the documentary, actress Glenn Close recalls the special friendship between Williams and Reeve, saying that they were both “aware of darkness” and knew how to lift each other’s spirits.
“I’ve always felt if Chris was still around, then Robin would be alive,” she said.
But Reeve’s greatest source of strength was his wife, Dana, whose initial words to him in the hospital helped quell his fears and doubts: “You’re still you, and I love you.”
Dana’s love and support for Reeve — whose year-round, 24/7 care cost roughly $400,000 — was continuous. With emotion, Alexandra Reeve recalls Dana shouting “I love you” over and over as Reeve passed.
Dana Reeve would die less than two years later, following an unexpected lung cancer diagnosis. Will Reeve was just 13 when he lost both of his parents — “I’ve been alone ever since then,” he says in the documentary.
Following the screening, that statement prompted someone in the audience to ask Will Reeve how he’s doing. He became emotional as he shared that his adopted family — “the single greatest thing” his mother ever did for him — was in the audience. He said he was overwhelmed with love and gratitude for his adopted family and for the love both of his parents gave him, as well as the bond he has with his two siblings.
“The three of us were given a great head start as people just having these role models in our lives and the values instilled in them,” he said.
All three siblings are involved with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, helping to carry on their parents’ legacy. And as they stood in front of the first few hundred people to view this new film about their father, they were visibly proud.
“We’re proud of all of it,” Will Reeve said. “We’re proud of all the complexities and nuances and not-so-great elements of the story, because that’s humanity, that’s what makes a human. And that’s what makes an ordinary individual into a hero, is all of the messiness and all of the striving to be better.”