“I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” ~ Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass.”

As a kid, I can remember watching Martha Coolidge’s “Real Genius,” looking through the cathode ray tube screen at Val Kilmer‘s antics and saying to myself, “this man is a genius.” The man somehow conveyed his intensity and dedication to his craft through the miracle that is celluloid (and magnetic video cassette tape).

In the autobiographical documentary, “Val,” Kilmer, through his son Jack and with over 800 hours of video footage the actor had taken throughout his life, narrates his passions, his loves, his art, ultimately his soul.

Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, “Val” is a deeply affecting look at the actor’s life. The documentary opens with a video taken by Kilmer in the trailers on the set of 1986’s “Top Gun,” with co-stars Rick Rossovich and Whip Hubley goofing off. With a pack of “More” cigarettes cupped in his right hand, Kilmer enters a stanza about the desires of life, wanting more of everything. Except for Tom Cruise. It was in jest, the actors got along fine, but it represents the character of Val Kilmer. He was taking his job seriously while having a playful sense of humor. Even though he admitted to not wanting to do the film because the script lacked elements that would have drawn in an actor of Kilmer’s caliber, his experience on set made his role fun.

Scott and Poo very cleverly use Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” over the opening credits with a static scrapbook montage of moments in Kilmer’s history break up each chapter. Nilsson’s song sets a decisive stage from which we get to experience Val’s life through his own eyes.

As any good actor does, and the film makes a point of this, they draw from their real-life experiences; Kilmer drew up a backstory of fatherly abandonment and a need for perfection. His character, Iceman, would go on to become infamous with fans. That underlying context is what fuels “Val,” exploring his artistic ambitions with his brothers.

This need for perfection started at Julliard in New York City. He wanted to be a theatre actor, and he had the chops for it, but Hollywood came calling, and it led to the performances that audiences have today. Although he was unfairly maligned for being a difficult actor to work with, Kilmer focused his energies on making each performance the best he could, even if he encountered resistance from the production staff.

His camcorder and eight-millimeter film roles serve as a testament to Kilmer’s family life, both as a child and an adult. Tragedy struck this deeply religious family early on, and it continued to follow Kilmer into his later life. Throughout, his professionalism shines through. Lurking under the surface is an intelligence fueled by emotion.

Kilmer might not have gotten some of the parts that he wanted. As with “Real Genius,” he was passionately committed to his performances. That passion fueled a lust and ultimately a romance with British actress Joanne Whalley, working together on the fantasy film “Willow.”

His passion life extended to his 6000-acre estate in New Mexico. His father, Eugene Kilmer, was born in Texas, where Val holds close to his heart. However, his father’s ancestry led him to the ranch in New Mexico, where he would settle and raise his family.

Throughout his trials and tribulations, including a bout with throat cancer in 2015, leaving him with a feeding tube in his throat, he continued his spiritual journey . . . that’s the best way to describe “Val.” A spirit about him exists outside of his physical form, a spirit that narrates us through his life and sets his virtues and values.

It hasn’t slowed him down, and if anything, though it has been a challenge to continue to work, he has persevered and gone on to create unique works of art.

His most significant role, his greatest spirit, is when he inhabited Mark Twain for his one-man play, “Citizen Twain,” the quirky story of Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church. The video version of this play, “Cinema Twain,” was exhibited here in Phoenix. I had the chance to meet Kilmer; his passion and enthusiasm for his fans (and I’m one of them) knew no bounds.

“Val,” a profound look at the man, his family, his life, perpetuates his adaptability, the change in his surroundings, and the conditions that affect that change. Kilmer continues to act and tour, rising above his physical challenges. He continues to radiate his presence, seeking perfection in everything he does.

I immediately set out to watch ‘Val’ again, it’s that powerful.


  • Movie Review: Val