There are a lot of people who do not like Oliver Stone. That can be understood once he became a respected director and started making very strange movies with weird and over-done camera tricks like with Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday and, of course, JFK. I happen to like all of those movies, but there are lots of people who do not. He has an admittedly pretentious feel to him that comes through not only in his movies but whenever you see him interviewed on TV.
There was a time, however, when he was considered something special. It is hard to remember Stone back when he was receiving accolades and awards for his impressive movie Platoon. It may be hard to even remember that movie. It is a very straight forward story told in a very straight forward manner. It contains none of the weird random images, strange music or odd camera and editing tricks that he would come to rely on later.
Not long after that movie he did another one that, I have to admit, has been on my personal favorites list since I saw it with some friends at the theater the weekend it came out. It was a movie that kind of came and went and maybe has a bit of a cult following, but there are many out there who do not know about the movie. When they hear that Oliver Stone had anything to do with it, it turns many of them off and that’s too bad. It’s a very powerful and moving motion picture with a powerhouse performance from an actor who has never quite matched the intensity of this film.
The movie is Talk Radio and it stars Eric Bogosian as a man named Barry Champlain, a talk radio host in Dallas who is teetering on the brink of a total emotional breakdown just as his career is about to take off into the stratosphere. The film is based on the one man stage show that Bogosian did that bore the same title and featured the same main characters. The film, as you might imagine, adds more characters and fleshes out the world around Champlain.
Bogosian is a whirlwind of pent up emotions festering below the surface. We find out that he got his start as a fast-talking suit salesman who, one day, meets a popular local radio personality. That personality brings him in on his show and Champlain becomes more popular than the man he was brought in with. Soon his career is taking off. Now, he is the featured star hosting a late night talk show called “Night Talk’ for KGAB in downtown Dallas. His studio overlooks the glittering city while he stalks about his studio berating, shouting and yelling at his callers. Night after night the freaks call in and talk to him about raping, murdering, drugs, orgasms and, most of all, about white supremacy. Champlain is Jewish, you see, and a prime target for those who don’t seem to like that much.
Then he finds out his show is about to go national. The one problem is that his boss, played by a young Alec Baldwin, thinks he should tone down his show until the deal with the national syndication company goes through. Barry doesn’t like that idea. In fact, the added pressure of the potential national syndication seems to push him over the edge.
The movie climaxes in a night when Barry decided to open the phones and go no-holds-barred with his audience. As the callers get crazier, so does Champlain. Finally, the movie reaches its dazzling crescendo as Champlain engages in a monologue where he berates, chides and screams at his audience to go away and that he hates all of them. It is a powerful, dazzling, gripping scene as the background seems to swirl around Champlain as he keeps ranting, his eyes getting wide and his face contorting in emotional pain. His world is spinning out of control and the twirling camera show us that.
Stone does an amazing job handling this. He manages to tell another very straight forward story about a very, very wounded man. He is unable to connect to anyone in his life and not even anyone in his audience. As he reaches the end of his rant at the end of his show he looks into the camera and then back at his microphone and says to his audience, “I guess we’re stuck with each other.”
This entire movie is Bogosian’s baby. He is at the very center of it and in nearly every scene. What is amazing is what an unlikeable person Barry Champlain is. He may have been a nice guy at one time but fame and fortune and success have turned him into this character he created. He no longer knows who he really is and has become just a voice in the night. He is hated by most of his very listeners who still find themselves unable to turn off his show and still tune in ever night.
The movie is an amazing character study of a deeply disturbed man as he goes through the throes of a complete mental collapse. He has finally reached the pinnacle of all that he dreamed of and he finds himself alone, hated and desperately lonely. He reaches out and can only hurt the people around him. He’s drowning and he can do nothing to save himself.
Despite this, this movie made me want to go into radio. I did end up spending some time there and I met a few people who seemed to have sacrificed everything in their lives for the chance to sit behind that microphone. These days as more and more people turn to satellite and internet radio and listening to music with their iPods, the days of the live DJ seem to be ending. I feel bad for those who devoted so much of themselves to a medium that seems to be running headlong for its demise.
Talk Radio is an overlooked gem of a movie. It deserves to be admired for Bogosian’s performance and for Stone’s direction. He knows when to push forward and he knows when to step back and let things happen. Whatever his directing style may have become down the road, this movie deserves to be seen with open eyes and an open mind. It’s easily one of his best movies and a must-see.