Today, we’re going to launch a new series of articles, called “Underrated Films To Remember”, which is consistent with what I’ve been writing over the past however many months. So, let’s talk about Oliver Stone.
I have a problem with Mr. Stone, more specifically his writing, Stone has seemingly never found a story he can sensationalize to the point of unfortunate implications: Midnight Express made the Turkish people… Well, you know a bad sign when the subject of the movie is apologizing for the movie, and the film’s portrayal of the Turkish people. Scarface turned the interesting story of the cocaine wars in Miami during the 80s into an action film, which cut out a lot of unique intricacies for cliches. (FYI there was a better movie about this, a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, I highly recommend that film over Scarface.) JFK turned the assassination of JFK into a conspiracy theory-fest, even though logic would indicate Stone was out of his mind. Let me be clear this is not about his talent, as a filmmaker or as a writer: this is about how he portrays events, and is someone who has never thought the term “Artistic license”, was a bad thing, even though, said term is.
So why am I talking about him? Well, I quite like his gripping 1988 film, Talk Radio, probably because the film isn’t an Oliver Stone film, in the traditional sense. I’ll explain in a bit.
Talk Radio is the story of “Shock Jock” disc jockey, Barry Champlain (played by Eric Bogosian), on his last night on a Dallas radio station, prior to a national contract for his call-in show, Night Talk, and what happens on said last night. Champlain is not a likeable protagonist, he is abrasive, mean, and treats his callers with absolute disdain, not surprisingly there are death-threats, and this is the story on what happens on his last night on the air in Dallas.
Based off a Pulitzer Prize nominated play written by Bogosian, (who also co-wrote the screenplay, alongside Stone), the film also featured a couple reprisals of roles from the original New York Public Theatre run, including Bogosian himself, John C. McGinley (Pre-Dr. Cox), and character actor Michael Wincott (known as the villain from The Crow, here reprising his role as the heavy-metal stoner Kent.) The film expands heavily on the source material, as the original play was contained to the radio booth, here the film adds a subplot, about his ex-wife (played by Ellen Greene), and a couple other scenes outside the radio station. As for Stone’s involvement, it’s apparent if you look hard enough. The setting was changed from Cleveland (in the Play) to Dallas, to ratchet up the angle, of antisemitism in the film. Stone reportedly advised Bogosian to buy the rights to a book based off the life of Alan Berg, A Denver talk radio host who was murdered in 1984, by white supremacists, because the play sounded similar to what transpired in real life.
Now to the positives itself, which is for the most part, the entire film. Bogosian, playing Champlain as a man whose confidence gets increasingly rattled as the film goes along, as he realizes some of these callers want him dead, it’s a terrifying thought, and Stone to his credit plays this drama up brilliantly. This is a thriller, turned character piece, and it’s downright terrifying. Something I do not know gets brought up if this film is ever talked about, is also how accurate the film is at capturing the atmosphere of being in a radio booth. I worked for about a year and a half, at a college radio station, and the prevailing fear which hung over everything was, “Is there anyone out there listening?”, it’s a terrifying thought, of no one out there cares, with a cold, sterile booth, and no one there to help you late at night. It’ll give you a complex for sure, and Stone not only captures the cold, loneliness of the studio, as the film goes along, the booth becomes yet another fear picking away at Barry Champlain, like a determined safe-cracker.
Bogosian, is astonishing, he was already known as a wonderful monologist, and here, he owns the role of Barry Champlain. There was a scene at the end of the movie, where Bogosian delivers this monologue, about all the horrible people who listen night after night, and as Stone’s camera spins around slowly, you can feel his desperation, his will, seemingly collapsing. The supporting cast is no slouch either, Ellen Greene plays his ex-wife, and to see her in this, and then look back at Little Shop of Horrors, is mind boggling to say the least. As I mentioned, John C. McGinley played Champlain’s engineer, it’s not a big role, but McGinley played the role well. A couple other notes, the radio station executive is played by a pre-fame Alec Baldwin, and the callers, are often double or triple-cast, the three most notable of the callers were Wincott (who I already mentioned), Park Overall (Alice from the second season of The Critic) and Earl Hindman (aka Wilson from Home Improvement), which keeps the film anchored to it’s theatrical roots, a nice touch.
I had mentioned in the beginning of the article, one of the reasons I’m surprised by the film is because the film isn’t an Oliver Stone film, which if you know your movies know what this curtails, A heavy-duty message film, focused on outsiders or free spirits, and how their spirits are crushed, and shattered repeatedly over the course of the film, with a tabloid view of politics in the most overbearing, completely obvious and at times most insufferable way possible, (Stone is not a master of the art of subtlety.) While a couple of these themes are prevalent in Talk Radio, the thing is, they’re not insufferable, here. Because they’re not the main theme of the movie. The main theme is Barry Champlain, and his story, and the politics are in the back seat. Yes, there are sensationalized politics, but I’m convinced those were in the original play to begin with, so I personally don’t mind, the film is Stone working on a more modest note, and the film really succeeds because of this approach.
The world has changed a lot in 30 years, talk radio still exists, but is not as omnipresent as it was then, as things like Twitch and Twitter have replaced talk radio, but a line from the movie says a lot about our media and culture, in his opening monologue talking about talk radio, Champlain remarked: “It’s the last neighborhood in town.”, and he was right, even though said neighborhood has moved online (in the form of social media), it’s the last place were anyone can talk freely, and if this is the case, everyone should be a bit worried, because you don’t know who is out there, wanting you gone, because they don’t like you. Have fun sleeping at night.