The Taser's Edge


Talk Radio (1988; dir. Oliver Stone)

When I watched this movie about a month ago, it was the fourth Oliver Stone movie I had seen in ten days, and W. was the worst.  Easily.  Not that Talk Radio is brilliant, but it is good, and the acting by the star, Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain, is very strong.  Apparently the original version of the work was a play penned by Bogosian, with him as the same character, and his performance has some of that stage-acting feel of overwrought emotion.

How to describe Talk Radio?  The basic plot is that Bogosian plays a DJ who is generally much tamer than the DJs that you can think of now, 23 years later.  He says awful things, but he’s not a shock jock, not Howard Stern.  He says political things, but he’s not a political talk radio guy, not Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or whomever.

Actually, while I’m sure that radio shows like his exist, I have never heard one.  His show has no format and no plan.  Basically, people call up with various things, and he talks at them in his own misanthropic way in order to entertain his audience.  Over time, he has developed a loyal group of folks who call in to talk about ongoing life issues.  Then he has plenty of random nuts.

And then he has gathered a group of loyal listeners who tune in and call in because Champlain (not his real name) is Jewish, and they hate Jews.  Neo-Nazis?  Maybe.  Holocaust deniers?  Yes.  Good ol’ boys?  Seem to be, although of a particular variety.  They call in, he baits them, they send death threats in the mail, and he baits them some more.  And the good people of Dallas listen in often enough that a national radio conglomerate wants to begin broadcasting nationally.

The meat of the movie is a number of different nights of the show, complete with a producer who Champlain is sleeping with; a hot, young Alec Baldwin playing that driven, deep-voiced corporate guy he perfected literally decades ago; and Champlain’s ex-wife coming into town, invited by him to provide emotional support during the jump to national celebrity.

This film feels dated in a not entirely bad way, but there are certain parts that make it feel like it has more worth as film history than as a film in itself.  That is, Network (1976) is one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a perfect vision of something close to what Talk Radio is aiming for.  This isn’t being unfair, as Talk Radio certainly pays homage to that earlier film, and Stone knows that Network is untouchably great.

Then on this side of Talk Radio, we have Spike Lee’s fantastic Bamboozled!, which envisions a reincarnated minstrel show becoming the top-rated show on American television in the 1990s.  It’s hard to say which film—Network or Bamboozled!—pushes the envelope further.  Network is eerily plausible, while Bamboozled! is less-than-plausible, even as something a bit less than an all-out minstrel show seems possible.

Watching it, particularly as a white male (myself), you do not know whether to laugh at the parts that are clearly meant to be humorous or not (as Lee himself says at the very end of this badly audio-synched interview).

(Sidetrack: And if you don’t think you can take the movie itself, at least watch this clip, which, although no less hard to watch, is the spiritual heart of the film.)

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So we have Network in 1976, then Talk Radio in 1988, then Bamboozled! in 2000, evenly spaced at 12 years apart.  As is the case in so many areas of life, the problem is in the sandwich.  Were Talk Radio just an updated Network, that would be fine.  A good movie standing in the shadow of a great movie—fine.  The problem is when Bamboozled! was made on the this side of Talk Radio, putting Talk Radio in the middle.  Compared to one giant, Talk Radio fares okay.  Compared to two giants, Talk Radio suffers.

Limiting a review to comparison is not quite fair, so I should also talk about Talk Radio on its own merits.  As I opened with, the talk radio program in the movie is not like Beck.  And yet…a show like the fictional show’s popularity paves the way to Beck.  It’s all about the power of words.  Talk Radio’s Barry Champlain seems to live a life believing that his words have little to no real power at the same time that he believes they have tremendous power and that his gift of words to those who call in gives them tremendous power as well.  (This is the American problem: freedom of speech is important because of the nearly limitless power of speech, yet the enshrinement of freedom of speech makes our speech cheap.)

I’d check this movie out if you’re trying to be an Oliver Stone completist, or if you’re interested in movies about media, or if you’re a student who wants to see a great actor (Bogosian) doing great work despite his surroundings, or you might check out a stage production if it comes to town.  The movie is not great, but it is solid.

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