Talk Radio

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage.”

The H-Bomb: Dallas-based radio host Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is a shock jock with a gift for gab and an uncanny ability to piss off just about every listener who tunes in to his show. The demographic doesn’t matter. You could be white, black, old, young, racist, conservative, liberal, man, woman, fan, or hater, it don’t make no never mind, Barry will size you up on the air and press just the right buttons to get you fuming. Sometimes he believes in what he’s arguing, other times he’s just talking shit to piss people off (“I love you blacks, I think everybody should own one.”). He gets death threats all the time, but he doesn’t take those too seriously anymore. In public he gets drinks thrown in his face and booed in stadiums. So why, oh why, does he keep doing what he does? For the ratings, Einstein, why else? In fact, his show is about to be picked for national syndication, which would make Barry a household name across America. Why should he stop now?

From the mid-80’s through to the end of the 90’s, Oliver Stone was one of the most prolific directors around, averaging a movie a year. Taking into account that he most often wrote as well as directed the bulk of these films, and the results included such works as “Platoon”, “JFK”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Natural Born Killers”, “Nixon”, “Wall Street”, “Salvador”, and “The Doors”, his film-a-year output rate seemed all the more impressive. Despite that most of the films he made are considered classics today, there were a few he made in that period that slipped through the cracks and failed to gain much notice, some deservedly so (“U-Turn”), and some not (“Heaven & Earth”). “Talk Radio” is definitely the latter.

Released in 1988, between “Wall Street” and “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Talk Radio” is an adaptation of lead actor Bogosian’s stage play, which in turn is loosely based on real life radio host Alan Berg, who was ultimately shot dead by white supremacists in 1984. With this story, Stone does what he did with “Wall Street” and tells another cautionary tale. Again, the theme is excess, though instead of capitalism and greed, this time he cautions against the excess of the spoken word. It’s not an argument against free speech, it’s simply saying that words do have power, and if taken too far, if the words fall on unstable ears, they can bring about violent and tragic consequences. Talk too much and bad things could happen.

Bogosian is a pretty familiar name in playwright circles for shows like this one and “SubUrbia”, though those not so well versed with the who’s-who of the theatre world (most of us), would probably just recognize him as the police captain from one of the “Law & Order” spin-offs. It’s a pity he’s not more well known, because here, he is a tour-de-force (awful clichéd term, but applicable). His Barry is opinionated, combative, and best of all, big mouthed. He is undeniably arrogant yet extremely self-loathing at the same time. On one hand he hates constantly getting into it with the Holocaust denying nut jobs and the brain dead do-nothings who call into his show every single night, but all the while, he seems to thrive on it, as well. It’s a love-hate, can’t live with it, can’t live without it thing with him (more terrible clichéd expressions… sorry, they’re unavoidable).

The rest of the cast, which includes Alec Baldwin as Barry’s business minded boss, and John C. McGinley as his board operator/call screener, all give first rate turns. Michael Wincott and Wilson from “Home Improvement” are among those who voice the various callers, with Wincott even appearing at one point late in the show. Apparently, even Moby can be heard at one point– damn, how long has that guy been around?

But this is really all about Bogosian, and he is incredible. He’s magnetic, he holds your attention to the screen, and he has one hell of a radio voice. At the climax, when he’s finally had it up to here with his moronic, bigoted, shithead callers, he explodes into a monologue that is one of the most impressively performed (and stylishly filmed) meltdowns I’ve ever seen.

This may be one of Stone’s more obscure films, but for me, it ranks right up there among his finest. It’s enthralling, suspenseful (though there’s no action), and ahead of its time, in terms of how talk radio has become a major alternative media outlet that has come to impact our world (though mainly from the Right, much to Stone’s chagrin, I’m sure).

Admittedly, the film loses a little steam when it leaves the studio and goes into Barry’s personal life. The subplot with his ex-wife should’ve been axed out of the screenplay completely. It was unneeded and unwanted, except to show that Barry can be just as big a jerk when he is off the air as he is when he‘s on it. But when the film shows Barry doing what he does, which is the bulk of the film, it’s captivating.

Some people may be turned off by the main character’s boorish personality, but the excellent, imaginative cinematography, the tension building editing, and Bogosian’s fiery lead performance make “Talk Radio” worth queuing up on Netflix… or if you find it for cheap at your local DVD store (like I did), then go ahead and make the blind buy – you won’t regret it.

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