Talk Radio. 1988. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Stone & Eric Bogosian; based on the play by Bogosian & Tad Savinar, which is based on the book Talked to Death: The Life & Murder of Alan Berg by Stephen Singular.
Starring Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, Alec Baldwin, John Pankow, Michael Wincott, Linda Atkinson, Robert Trebor, Zach Grenier, Tony Frank, Harlan Jordan, Anna Levine & Allan Corduner. Cineplex-Odeon Films/Ten-Four Productions.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Disclaimer: parts of this review will spoil the finale, which is obviously huge. So I urge you to check the movie out, then come back. If not there’s an intense moment near the end that’ll be totally ruined for you.
Oliver Stone is a filmmaker whose catalogue of work can easily divide people. Then there are hardcore supposed Stone fans that don’t like his movies that aren’t like Natural Born Killers or JFK. They don’t want him unless he’s on full-throttle Stone style, whatever that is. Because for me, he is a versatile director and storyteller. He is always slightly political, if not completely politically minded. But there are many facets to his in your face style of filmmaking. First and foremost, Stone is continually concerned about the truth. His films are a way of examining the truth, and sometimes various truths, about life, politics, history, and everything else in between.
Talk Radio is perhaps one of his most poignant films, for many reasons. Despite what he says about his own work. First, the screenplay was written by Stone and also star Eric Bogosian, based on the stage play Bogosian wrote with Tad Savinar. In turn, that play is further based on Stephen Singular’s biography about radio host Alan Berg. So there’s a very interesting aspect to Stone’s film that captures part of the stage play, in the sense we stick close to lead character Barry Champlain, and many of the extended scenes are relegated to the radio station’s main room. With Stone’s talent, and a blockbuster performance from Bogosian in a role that he already knew but was able to flesh out onscreen, Talk Radio becomes a highly personal, emotional journey that’s also a part of a larger conversation about freedom of speech and difference of opinion.
Oh, and Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is the reason I like to use the word ‘meatball’ in reference to idiots. Frequently.
At his basest level, Barry is searching for passion. Even if it’s the wrong kind, he’s seeking those who feel strongly. When his ex-wife comes back into the picture he realizes she’s likely the only person who actually cares about him. However, she has moved on. But the audience hasn’t, not just the people who like listening to his show, also the ones who hate him. The audience cannot move on, not like his ex-wife. Even his ex-wife is drawn to him, despite remarrying, and though she knows he’s toxic there’s something that keeps her coming back. And the audience is the same. Because at the bottom of it all a guy like Champlain is needed. He inflames both the right and left, and anybody, everybody in between. He constantly and consistently challenges the status quo as an equally opportunity offender; he doesn’t care if you’re black, white, another Jew such as himself, or whoever.
In a day and age where freedom of speech is often at war with people and their differing values, Barry isn’t dated. He is fresh and unique. He represents the right to say what you mean, as long as what you say has merit. This is clearly, easily represented in the way he screens his own calls. Whatever comes through the line, stupid or profound (most of which falls into the former category), Barry takes on. Sometimes he has things to say, other times he’ll just hang up. Because he has things to talk about, he has legitimate ideas that are built around fact and not solely on opinion. Barry draws a line in the sand which ultimately explains what free speech is all about. In that yes, you can say what you want, at least as far as libel and such goes. You can’t just say anything without consequence, and you can’t just say anything without something to back it up. A little fact, a piece of tangible evidence to back yourself up. Without that, what is there? Opinion. It’s fine to have one. Although opinion isn’t truth.
HUGE SPOILER AHEAD: in the end, Barry pays for his truthfulness, his facts and the way he jams them viciously down peoples throat, sparing no one on either side of an issue if they’re not coming with anything credible. He gets gunned down in the parking lot coming out of his show. This is when the free speech bumps up against extremism. The problem with anyone on any side getting to a point of extremism is that they do not consider the fact they’re silencing the same free speech they likely champion for their wild perspectives. Here, the neo-Nazi, white nationalists are the hypocritical faction, at once calling for free speech and at the same time threatening Barry with bodily harm over his outspoken views.
Eric Bogosian transforms a character from a stage play into one that works just as well onscreen. He’s powerful. There are plenty of times he gets to monologue, including one mammoth speech in particular that’s wildly intense. A few of the more powerful moments involve when Barry is confronted over the phone by men who are clearly white supremacists. There’s an air of confidence, an abundance of it almost all the time. Yet underneath, Bogosian shows that Barry is afraid. Not necessarily of them, but of himself and how far he’ll allow it all to go, to what place he’ll eventually get and if he can come back. The whole character is complex, representative of many things. While so much of Barry is about free speech, he’s also about belief and how much a person’s beliefs mean to them. Right to the end he is strong, though to a fault. I can’t think of anyone better to have played him in the film.
This is possibly my favourite Oliver Stone film, right up there next to Salvador. Using the amazing stage play with which Eric Bogosian was associated is a stroke of genius. Much as Oliver Stone claims it inhibited him, in his mind. To me, it worked perfectly. This is one of the less Stone-like films in his own catalogue. Not in any bad way, as I love his style. But Talk Radio is a more straight up take on the subject. No less impressive and powerful. Through a fantastic central performance from Bogosian we’re able to access the inner life of Barry Champlain while simultaneously exploring all those themes he encompasses. There aren’t as many movies out there about freedom of speech that are as good, nor are there any that come so near to the danger in which free speech finds itself today, sadly, in the 21st century. Watching this now it takes on a whole new life. We need more people like Barry. To keep pushing the envelope, though not for one side or the other. Just simply pushing.