Thursday, January 05, 2006

Film Review #5 - Talk Radio

WARNING: Review contains spoilers!

Talk Radio is a 1988 Oliver Stone movie starring Eric Bogosian as "the man you love to love," Barry Champlain, a shock jock at a Dallas radio station, poised to break through to the national consciousness. On and off air, Champlain's self-destructiveness, his arrogance, and his non-stop mouth, combine to lay waste to whoever attempts to connect with him. Callers phone in and are abused, whether they like the show or not, as Barry flips between moods and tones at will, maintaining an ambiguous flux that keeps him in charge. And when all else fails, there's always the cut-off switch.

Alec Baldwin plays Barry's agent, who has negotiated a deal for national syndication. Naturally, this proves Stone's chance to usher in The Man, in the form of a corporate minion who stations himself outside the studio and simply observes Champlain. Under professional and personal pressures, Champlain ups the self-destructive streak of his show to new heights, baiting fascists, insulting fans, and inviting a screwed-up hippie druggie, Kent, to come down to the studio and join him live on air.

The resulting scene with Kent in the studio, contributing to the show, is the strongest material on offer. While undoubtedly garbled and fucked up, Kent is still connecting through the mental static with a strain of 60s idealism that has faded out into the phoney rebellion of heavy metal videos. Kent's brainless widsom brings into focus Champlain's own credibility, which is seen in flashback, from selling suits, to a pointless marriage derailed through casual sex, to a sort of success, snarling at the trash, the racists, and the fragmented souls who call his show. At one point a fan calls in to declare her love for Barry (the devaluation of love and hate reappears again and again) and is reduced to tears, Champlain railing at the knuckleheaded monster of an audience he has accumulated.

The night's show ends with the lines dead and Champlain delivering an introspective monologue on the vacuity and purposelessness of his life. In a twist on the moral ambivalence of corporate America, this exercise in complete fragmentation is adjudged a hit, and Barry has succeeded despite his best efforts.

He is then gunned down in the parking lot.

The end.

There are some wonderful things about this movie, the sheer flow of words, Bogosian's excellent performance and his mastery of tone, the ability to morph into the opposite of whatever assails him, to find alienation in every sound he hears. But somehow, the film overall does not work in the way Wall Street worked, somehow there is nothing revelatory at the heart of this film. Much is made of Champlain's Jewishness, perhaps as a key to his alienation, and the ultimate contradiction of the alienated communicator, but the strands of his thoughts, his personal life, and his career, don't add up to a hero diverted from any noble cause, and neither does he reflect some deep truth about America. The soul-searching monologue becomes confused and any allegorical content becomes indecipherable. The violent end, set in motion by the power of words, spoken only to arouse the base emotions, without genuine conviction, becomes the final irony, coming at the end of a night when Champlain's last vestiges of any claim to moral purpose have been shredded.

A better take on the substance of Talk Radio, the essential emptiness and corporate imperatives of the mass media, is the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie, Network, where a news anchor (William Holden) with nothing left to live for announces he will commit suicide live on air. His fragmentation revives a flagging network and new shows are spun off from his mad utterances. Memorable for the phrase, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!", Network is not as committed to authenticity, but is more damning, more adventurous, with better set pieces. Catch it if you can.

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