Film #4: Talk Radio
Last night I watched the film “Talk Radio”. It stars Eric Bogosian, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Hope,Ellen Greene, (I, and wikipedia, would argue John C McGinley and John Pankow star as well, even though they are not given top billing). It was directed by the great Oliver Stone and written by Bogosian from his original stage play.
First, dear readers, the plot. The film shows us the inner workings and inner turmoil of a Dallas Talk Radio host over the weekend before his show goes into national syndication. Barry Champlain (Bogosian) is a Jewish, chain smoking, tell it like it is radio host who goads his weaker “fan” based callers and stands up to the cowardly “haters”. Barry is a former suit salesman who got his break by appearing on a popular radio program and stealing the thunder from his idol. His show is littered with callers that are lonely and need a “friend” to talk to as well as with Anti Semetic ranters who threaten to kill him at every psychological turn. Coupled with Barry’s on air chaos, he finds himself dealing with his boss Dan (Baldwin) who has put together a deal with a corporate sponsor to take the show national without his input or approval, a corporation handler (Pankow) who stares at him from the booth with a lurid stare of “how to get this guy to dance for the sponsor”, a producer-girlfriend(Hope) who does her best to live in both worlds of Barry(radio and bedroom), and a flaming desire to make his ex wife (Greene) proud of him and possibly win her back. We are taken through Barry’s weekend to see both the love of Barry (girlfriend and ex wife,fans) and the hatred of Barry (he is booed by the crowd at a sporting event). When the show is to go national on Monday, the sponsor has a change of heart because of the risk involved with bringing on a larger than life person like Barry who is constantly receiving death/bomb threats from Neo Nazis and disturbing calls from fake ODers and rapists. The Monday show proves to be a night that will change Barry’s life and philosophy forever….cannot say more.
Here is what I thought…AMAZING!!!! If there were 15 stars on a ten point scale, I would give that. It is a travesty that this film was not nominated for a single Oscar. There were so many things to love about this movie and nothing to hate. First, I want to comment on the main reason I loved this movie, the cast. Whoever cast this movie (whether it was Stone or Bogosian or whoever) is a genius. From top to bottom this movie was acted to the extremes. Each actor played their role to the point where this film would not have survived without them. Each role was vital, each line was needed, each character could have easily been the focus of their own film. I love, love, love that this film is littered with stage actors. These are not just mumbly pretty girls and boys designed to sell albums and clothing lines, these are men and women with souls and depth who clearly cherish the craft of performing. Bogosian is phenomenal from his aggressive posture to the emotion in his eyes. He plays the perfect balance of a man who acts like nothing gets to him and a man who is terrified of every step (nothing demonstrates this better than when he decides to open the box from the caller…or the near tears in his eye at the sporting event; his nervous over the shoulder looks whenever a twig snaps). Every ounce of Bogosian is committed to Barry Champlain.
Baldwin (in his 5th film of 1988) darkly sparkles as a man who has no sympathy for the psychosis of his employee and will do anything to craft the show and protect his own life and business deals. I have never seen Greene beyond “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Heroes”, but I am now a fan. She is the quiet calm in Barry’s life, but plays the role with a subdued rage, always keeping Barry at arm’s length. When she finally lets down her guard to sacrifice for him, you can feel the insecurity in her voice and actions; she knows what is coming.
McGinley (who I always loved in Scrubs) is the call screener, Stu, whose life is dedicated to being the gate keeper for Barry. You will never feel more sympathy for a call screener’s life than you will when you watch the pain and frustration at each dress down of Stu by Barry. It made me realize that the call screener, more than the host, is the conductor of any talk radio show. In his hands lies the success of the show, whether he puts on good callers or bad callers. McGinley knows this and allows Barry to take him apart, because we can see in Stu’s eyes and actions that he knows that without him, Barry is nothing. It is interesting because we learn that Stu is also the gate keeper of Barry’s personal life and that he allowed him to make one bad choice, sending the tempo of his off air life into a tailspin. McGinley is so subtle with his love of Barry, acting the role of a burnt out Jiminy Cricket. This is probably why he is in Oliver Stone’s stable of actors who are constantly used in his films. Even Pankow, who has very few lines is terrific. He says very little, but the disgust on his face through the glass as he watches Barry’s show conveys a thousand words. He is silently pushing Barry to the edge without having to tell him anything. He is the devil, dangling what he knows Barry wants on a silent pendulum. He knows Barry will dance for the corporation, it is just a matter of pulling the right strings on his fragile ego. He holds himself like a pencil that is about to snap. Great work Pankow…way to redeem your accepting the role in Johnny Be Good.
Even the callers are noteworthy. As someone who used to do voiceover work, I have an ear for who is behind the sound. My favorite (and probably my wife’s least favorite) thing about going to animated films is playing spot the voice. Well color me surprised when I picked out the caller voices of “Home Improvement’s” Earl Hindman (RIP) and “Empty Nest’s” Park Overall as multiple callers. Hindman’s African American caller is a particularly strange moment in the film. These voices antagonize Barry, pushing him to the knife’s edge of insanity, yet they propel his show forward and light his self-righteous fire. Like Stu, Dan,or any of the other people that surround his studio, without the callers he has no career. After a brilliantly written on air melt down, Barry is even forced to recognize this truth. This is an ensemble cast worth seeing. Sidenote- I met Eric Bogosian in 1995 at the Westside Theater’s production of “The Food Chain”…super nice man.
I know I am going long on this, but I can’t help myself. There is so much to love. Stone’s direction is top notch. His camera angles during moments of tension are just like Hitchcock’s. Through his lens we see the beads of sweat on Barry, even when he is trying to play it cool. Stone spins around the studio and tracks Barry with the obsession of a prowling lion in moments of heightened anxiety, making the viewer feel just as tense and confused as Barry. Stone always seems to get the best out of his angles and his actors. Mad props to Oliver Stone.Sadly, I have read where Stone doesn’t even like to recognize this movie when asked about it.
Lastly, the writing of this film is a treasure. There are so many great moments, so many meanings to interpret. This film is an examination of what someone would sell to get what they want. Barry makes a reference to the story of the dog with the bone who sees his reflection in the water and thinking it is another dog with another bone, drops his in order to bark and then has nothing. This is the message we see throughout the film. From his days as a suit salesman Barry wants what everyone else has. He wants the fame, the success and the corporate sponsor. In his youth he acts a great game about being aloof with his long hair and “cowabunga” attitude. In reality it is all part of his plan to rise to the top. He will crawl, he will crush,he will maim a pathetic listener to goose his ratings. This film mirrors that time in American history perfectly, the rise of the “shock jocks” like Howard Stern and of Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh. This is a time when radio personalities began to say whatever needed to be said to keep the audience in their car and their hand away from the dial. Sure, the barbs were either political or sexual, but whether liberal or conservative it is always the same pretense, a show relies on 1. audience 2. sponsors., and sponsors don’t come without an audience. This script nails the business in the same way that “Wall Street” or “Broadcast News” would peel back the curtain on their perspective targets to reveal the struggle and broken eggs it took in order to be successful in the Reaganomics 1980′s. It always mirrors a time in our history when an undercurrent of “separatist militia” mind was bubbling under the surface. We would see the results of this in places like Oklahoma City in the 1990′s.
In the end Barry realizes that for all of his shouting and all of his “down with the man” , he is the dog and if he wants to get his dream of a national show he cannot have all of the “bones”. He has to sell a piece of himself. When he brings in the “kid” into his studio he sees where he came from and what talkers like himself have done to the discourse of America. He sees himself in the burned out kid and the game he played to get where he is. You never feel like “the kid” is as high as he wants you to believe he is. I always felt like he was gaming Barry just like Barry did to his mentor. “Et Tu Joe”. This all leads to that beautifully crafted on air melt down when Barry wins by losing, Dan smells money, Stu looks on as a failed conscience who couldn’t stop the Faustian bargain (or Pinocchio from going with Stromboli), Pankow’s Dietz smiles with venom as he holds Barry’s contract,and Greene’s Ellen flees, destroyed by her moment of self sacrifice. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
Historically this film is based on the events that surrounded the murder of a Denver Radio Host, Alan Berg, by Neo Nazis, but I think it really stands out as a testament to the late 1980′s and the rising values of celebrity,isolation in a overly connected modernity, greed, and narcissism. What would you do to get what you have always wanted? RENT THIS!!!