The Daily Stream: Amazon's Val Lets Val Kilmer Tell His Own Story

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Val"

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime Video

The Pitch: Long before video cameras became cheap enough that suburban families could afford them, actor Val Kilmer bought one and started recording his life. He was one of the first people he knew to own one (Kevin Bacon was very impressed by it in one clip captured backstage during a play the two were in during the early 1980s), and a member of the first generation to have that technology at their fingertips. So he spent years shooting tape after tape, capturing a mixture of behind the scenes footage from tons of his biggest movies to personal family moments.

Then, tragically, Kilmer was diagnosed with cancer and lost his voice.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Even though Kilmer can no longer speak in that velvety voice fans are so familiar with – he now has to cover a hole in his throat with a finger to speak, and it feels like every sentence requires significant physical effort – "Val" gives the actor the opportunity to craft his own story, going all the way back to the childhood trauma of losing one of his brothers, becoming the youngest person accepted to Julliard, touching on all of his major movies, and detailing the conception and execution of his one-man show about Mark Twain. If you're a fan of movies like "Top Gun," "Tombstone," "The Doors," this film contains a wealth of behind the scenes footage you won't see anywhere else, and for some, those moments will be enough to justify checking this out. The movie also paints a nice picture of Kilmer's relationship with his kids; he lives right next door to his daughter, and his son Jack reads this movie's first-person narration as if he were his father, which is a cool creative decision that leads to a couple of heartwarming moments.

Where the documentary falters is when it comes time to address Kilmer's reputation as a "difficult" actor to work with. There are a couple of nods to his supposed tough behavior on sets, but the documentary frequently brushes past these moments and largely ignores them altogether. In the mid-'90s, Val had not spoken to his surviving brother Mark for years (Mark was even giving interviews to Entertainment Weekly essentially sh*t-talking Val), but you'd never know that from watching the documentary. The doc reveals a moment on the set of "The Island of Dr. Moreau" in which Val antagonizes replacement director John Frankenheimer, but stories from that time detail outrageous behavior that far exceeds anything even hinted at in this film (he reportedly burned a cameraman's face with a cigarette). Joel Schumacher, who directed Kilmer in "Batman Forever," once said this of working with the actor:

"[We] had a physical pushing match. He was being irrational and ballistic with the first AD, the cameraman, the costume people. He was badly behaved, he was rude and inappropriate. I was forced to tell him that this would not be tolerated for one more second. Then we had two weeks where he did not speak to me, but it was bliss."

Again, you'd never know that happened from watching "Val." And look, I'm not suggesting that Kilmer should have addressed all of these stories one by one in the documentary – that would be ridiculous, and it would require a level of patience and self-awareness that most people probably don't have. But casual Kilmer fans who toss this movie on will walk away having no idea about the extreme nature of the stories about him, and that information feels like important context for what we're seeing in "Val." Then again, half of the stories about him could have been made up or embellished by people who simply had differences of opinion with him; blaming an actor who has a burgeoning reputation as a bad boy who's tough to work with sounds like a convenient way for Hollywood sleazebags to cover up their own mistakes. 

In any case, this documentary (directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott) puts the ball back in Kilmer's hands and allows him to reshape the narrative around him, for better or worse. You'll have to do some extra research to be able to understand the whole picture of this mercurial actor, but the one he paints himself is certainly entertaining enough to watch.