Friday, October 9, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Talk Radio

Talk Radio (1988)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Eric Bogosian & Oliver Stone based on the play by Bogosian & Tad Savinar and the book by Stephen Singular.
Starring: Eric Bogosian (Barry), Ellen Greene (Ellen), Leslie Hope (Laura), John C. McGinley (Stu), Alec Baldwin (Dan), John Pankow (Dietz), Michael Wincott (Kent / Michael / Joe), Linda Atkinson (Sheila Fleming), Robert Trebor (Jeffrey Fisher / Francine), Zach Grenier (Sid Greenberg), Tony Frank (Dino).

Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio is perhaps the director’s least known film since his breakout in 1986. If the film was bad, that would be understandable. Yet, Talk Radio is not bad – it’s actually one of Stone’s best films, even if it seems, at first glance anyway, to be a rather atypical film for him. Like many early Stone films, Talk Radio is in many ways, a howl of rage at the State of America at the time the movie was made. Oddly, even though Talk Radio is about a media form that is long past it’s era of prime influence, Talk Radio has aged far better than you would expect it to (far better than Wall Street, the much better known Stone film released the year before). It would be very easy to see a modern day version of Talk Radio take place entirely online – or on Twitter. Except in the intervening years, things have gotten much, much worse.

The movie stars Eric Bogosian – who also co-wrote both the screenplay, and Pulitzer Prize nominated play the movie is based on. It was inspired by the life and death of Alan Berg, a Colorado radio personality gunned down by white supremacists. The movie takes place over four days – starting on Friday night, when popular Dallas late night talk radio host Barry Champlain finds out that the following Monday, his show is going National. Barry is both loved and hated on the air- he is a politically liberal, outspoken Jew in the middle of Texas, so of course he generates controversy. But Barry doesn’t just hatred for bigots, and those on the right. He’ll rip just about anyone who calls in apart for any reason. This has gotten him fans – and detractors, and more than a few death threats. Barry doesn’t much care – he seems to have a death wish, and is scared of his own success. After finding out he is going National, he calls his ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) to come in for the weekend, so he’ll have someone he can trust – this despite the fact that she has already re-married, and he’s now sleeping with his much younger producer, Laura (Leslie Hope). After a trying weekend, he returns on Monday night – to discover that the breaks have been put on him going National. He may be a little too controversial. The show that night goes off the rails even more than usual – which, of course, is exactly what is wanted.

The original stage play apparently took place entirely in the radio studio, “on the air” as it were the entire time. The movie opens this up a little bit – a trip to a basketball game, where the fans show Barry what they think of him, flashbacks to his Barry’s rise up the ranks to his current position, a scene with Barry and Laura outside of work, where he feelings for her become clear. These scenes are fine – they help fill in the gaps in Barry’s personality – but they are largely not needed. The main focus of the movie is, and should be, those two nights – Friday and Monday – and how Barry pushes everyone around him – his employers, employees, his girlfriend, his ex-wife, and his listeners – to their breaking point and then keeps right on going.

As a director, Stone does a remarkable job using the tight, claustrophobic space of the radio station itself – opening it visually with his camera, which moves nearly constantly in the confined space. Bogosian is at the heart of every scene, and he delivers a great performance – the type of once in a lifetime role actors like him rarely get (which is why he had to write it for himself). He was unquestionably the right choice for the role, even if he wasn’t a big enough star to sell the film.

Talk Radio is about freedom of speech – which of course means nothing without the freedom to offend. Barry Champlain is offensive to be sure – but that’s why people tune in every day, to hear what he’s going to say next. And freedom of speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want without consequence – you’re allowed to say whatever offensive thing you want, but people are allowed to be offended. But it’s about more than that as well – throughout the course of movie, Barry sees himself more clearly than he has before, just how miserable he really is, and how perhaps he isn’t that much better than the people he’s talking to. They deserve each other.

This is what makes Talk Radio still relevant today. Today’s internet culture is much like the insular world than Barry had created for himself – a constant outrage generator, in which Barry is able to get angry at anyone and anything for any reason. It’s easy for Barry to be an ass when it’s just voices on the other end of a phone – they aren’t people. During that last broadcast, they become people however – one of his callers shows up at the station, and he gets to see who his audience is close up. Then when his ex-wife calls in, he is cruel to her. There is a line – and he crosses it, and he knows he cannot come back from it. Barry is a victim to be sure – but in some ways, he’s a co-conspirator in his own victimization.

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