Oliver Stone: Talk Radio (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
22Mar/130

Oliver Stone: Talk Radio (1988)

Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) knows just what to say to get a rise out of you.  After a chance to shine as a guest on a radio talk show his fame and personality blew up.  Now he's the figurehead of a new generation of radio listeners, skewering traditional bounds of good taste with wit.  That wit starts to run afoul of Neo-Nazis, his management, and the threatening idea that maybe he's dragging the country down along with everyone else.His own sense of prayerAndrewCommentaryBannerElizabeth Warren, the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts, recently proposed that the Federal minimum wage should go up to $10. During that time, if you popped on your radio and tuned the dial to a voice like Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin you'd probably hear that she suggested it go to $22.  That transition was made via a unified decision to completely ignore the context of her declaration and jump straight into the yelling.  Sadly, there's still more substance to what these shows have become than the grueling indictment of gasping leftist media in Talk Radio.

With this willingness to turn the critical lens back around from his dual '80s darlings of war and capital, Oliver Stone made a film that has all the cohesive vision of Platoon minus the unfortunate lead performance.  He based it on a play by Eric Bogosian (who also stars) and Ted Savinar though I never felt those theatrical elements kick in.  This is a brilliant film, first, and given Bogosian's close involvement doubles as a respectful treatment of the source material.  Bogosian, as Barry Champlain, barely offers a single cogent criticism in the movie.  Instead he utilizes the same racial epithets as those that call in wrapping them in the guise of actual criticism.  He slowly builds to one of the most effectively visualized existential crises I've seen in cinema.

Stone avoids the trapped play feeling by giving Champlain just enough room to breathe but still be looked at like a bug in a slide.  Repeatedly the characters, even when they're trying to save him, say, "It's Barry's show," but they keep themselves, and the city, separated from him through glass.  This also gives the camera the same kind of limited freedom that results in a number of nerve-wracking sequences like when Barry, completely trapped in himself, is motionless and circled round and round by a dispassionate camera and supporting crew.  If Wall Street had even an eighth as much style as any two shots in this film did I might have appreciated it a little more.

Barry's still there, trapped by his rage and meaningless commentary.  He's positioned himself as the last of the left with nothing to say.  When he realizes this he's confronted by one of his greatest fans who seems to have taken every word to heart and can barely form coherent sentences.  When an older, smarter, fan speaks with him he correctly points out all she wants to do is feel superior to the folks who call in but can't articulate why.  All that great ammo the '80s Reagan-era gave him and this is what he's reduced himself to.  What a damn shame.Period of successionKyle Commentary Banner“He slowly builds to one of the most effectively visualized existential crises I've seen in cinema.” I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. The singular strength of Talk Radio is Bogosian's incredible performance and Stone's iron-clad grip on style and tone. However, I wish that either of them had been able to inject some heart or character development into the first half in order to make the crisis of the last act a bit more meaningful on more than just an intellectual level. Here is a movie the technical mastery of which is unassailable, but it's one-note in almost every respect. That doesn't diminish the skill at play or the power of the later scenes in which Bogosian's main character is confronted with the reality of his own reach and relevance, but it limits it in an unfortunate way.

For almost an hour we get him spouting well-rehearsed arguments and punchy comebacks against a slew of shallow and bigoted callers. This is effective at first in establishing the cliché that is his character, but it wears thin quickly. We get it: Barry is a good liberal who tells his wrong-minded callers like it is—but if we aren't to be as impressed with Barry as he is with himself, why spend so much screen time watching him go through this same routine?

We do get a bit of character development in a flashback that quickly shows how he became a talk radio host (and torpedo'd his marriage), but this sequence is rushed and workmanlike. The screenplay doesn't take the time to really give us a sense of who Barry is here aside from showing us that he was “fearless” from the very beginning, briefly hijacking a show while he's a guest host. It's not until he brings a young caller into the studio that we finally get a break in the monotony of his show, and this sequence works precisely because it finally provides some sort of real counterpoint to his endless stream of regurgitated opinions and responses.

As Barry sits across from the caller—who appropriately looks like a real-life version of Garth from Wayne's World—and realizes that all the things he says on the air, all the problems he self-righteously rails against, all the anger he's putting into his show is falling essentially on deaf ears, we finally get a moment of humanity. It's an intense moment because we start to feel the void that Barry feels upon encountering evidence that the only people out there really listening to him may be a generation that operates exclusively via irony. He can't go back to canned responses and unsolicited lessons after this because the existential crisis you mentioned has been set into motion.

This makes the last scenes—where the camera circles Barry while he unloads on the air about how hopeless everything is like a teenager who just read about the Enlightenment for the first time—incredibly effective from the outside looking in. We can't really sympathize with Barry, or even empathize with him, but it's tough to deny the power with which Stone manages to convey the utter meltdown of a man who we never get to know with any complexity or humanity—which I suppose fits with how all talk radio show hosts are viewed by their audience.The dark life of film

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryIt's funny to say that any controversy I would be able to drum up for the film would be almost entirely manufactured.  Talk Radio was fairly well received by critics at the time but went almost completely unnoticed by the public.  Since the plot has a bit too do with a leftist eating himself whole during a broadcast that's not too surprising as there weren't many left to either feel enlightened or offended.  I also wonder about the association with Alan Berg, who was the actual liberal DJ killed in 1984 and formed the basis of Barry, but looks more like the guy Barry replaced (Barry looks more like Howard Stern than anyone else).  That opens up a whole other fun avenue of commentary and potential for controversy but more a fun point of analysis from Stone.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't see any controversy here either, though I wonder to what extent Bogosian's involvement as the writer of the play and co-writer of the screenplay influenced that. I can see Stone making a much more controversy-inclined movie if left only to his own devices, especially considering the story's basis in a real-world murder, but here the focus isn't on the potential outrage or social commentary that would entail. Centering the conflict within the main character as a way to access his own failings creates a much quieter film—and as you said, likely less dated or cliché—than a direct biopic designed to stir people up.

 

This is my breakdown

How did Stone capture the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThis film came along the same year that Rush Limbaugh went national and two years since Howard Stern did the same.  Looking back at their early careers I have to cycle back to my opening comparison, Stern very much sounded like the empty vassal and Limbaugh the voice to leave the '80s on.  Talk Radio captures at least the Stern era perfectly and offers terrifying hints of the angry commentary to come.  It's much more insightful than something like Network, which I love but gets a bit too carried away on its own histrionics.  You can say that's part of the point, but Talk Radio makes its critiques a bit more subtly, more like A Face in the Crowd, which pointed the way toward Glen Beck in the way this points away from a shattered left.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYou hit the nail on the head. The film manages to capture a sense of empty outrage that seems perfectly suited to the 80s—and, minus the shallowness, fits in with all the films we've already discussed—while at the same time looking to the future with unfortunate clarity.

 

I guess this is the final result

That may be interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryNot only is this the best film I've seen from Stone, it has my favorite performance in Eric Bogosian, and the most memorable scenes from Stone so far.  The way that Stone isolates Barry from the world just enough keeps the film from running into any dated parts.  Even the control room where Barry's assistant (played excellently yet again in his third appearance by John C. McGinley) punches cassettes into machines feels practical today.  After all, "It's Barry's show".

Most importantly, this kind of angry impotency resonates with me.  By "Telling it like it is" without a goal he gave way to a generation of talk show hosts that replaced his nihilism with scary proclamations and just enough information to be dangerous.  Stone infuses the audience with a different kind of anger by showing Barry's story.  At the end there's all those voices, still hollow, and only one wondering how else it could have been.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryFor me it's good but not great. Stripping down some of the early scenes would result in a tighter movie that gets to its strong points sooner and would make the impact of the last act even more intense. I'd still have liked a bit more to root Bogosian's character in, but I get their decision to leave him as a kind of blank political type. It gives the movie a harder edge and makes a more specific point, but for that reason I don't feel the need to see it more than just the once.

Next week: Born on the 4th of July!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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