Friday 27 September 2019

Movie Review: Talk Radio (1988)

A drama set in a world crawling with society's worst tendencies, Talk Radio lifts the lid on the intersection of flippant celebrity and human degradation.

In Dallas, Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is an acerbic and popular late night talk radio show host. His call-in guests are a mix of weirdos, fanatics, right-wing nutcases and spaced-out addicts. Barry insults them all, and receives his share of abuse and death threats in return. His producer and girlfriend Laura (Leslie Hope) bears the brunt of his narcissism, along with call screener Stu (John C. McGinley). Radio station head Dan (Alec Baldwin) is excited the show may be expanded into national syndication, and media boss Dietz (John Pankow) arrives to finalize the deal.

Barry insists he will not compromise his coarse style to suit a broader audience and calls on his ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) to join him for moral support. In flashback, the story of his breakthrough from selling men's suits into the world of radio celebrity is revealed. Ellen's arrival triggers Barry's insecurities as he awakens to what he has lost on the way to stardom. With the syndication deal on the line, he goes on the air questioning all that he stands for.

A hard-hitting descent into the carnage caused by commercializing derangement, Talk Radio is a grim journey to hopelessness. An adaptation of Bogosian's play as well as the book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg by Stephen Singular, director Oliver Stone delves into the grimy corners of a broken society where the filth oozes out on nighttime radio. And this being America, the twin promises of notoriety and profit attract exploiters, and men like Barry, Dan and Dietz don't care what they are selling as long as it sells.

The film is mostly set in the studio as Barry handles the incoming calls, his talent revealed to be a quick thinking ability to exploit every caller into a micro-shock moment, forgotten as soon as the next caller is on the air. His aura is irresistible for the same reasons accidents attract crowds, and most of his audience cannot articulate why they tune in.

Despite the limited set variety Stone injects large doses of dynamism by playing with lights, shadows and close-ups, keeping the cameras moving, and drawing on Bogosian's energy. Dan, Dietz, Stu, Laura and Ellen are a ready-made in-studio audience, their behind-the-glass background observations and reactions to Barry's highs and lows amplifying each outrageous phone call.

Poking the insomniacs, the depressed, and the demented carries obvious risks, and Barry as a successful, influential and outspoken Jew attracts more than his fair share of intimidating hate callers hurling abuse or outright threatening his demise. Every package received in the mail is a potential threat, the dance with death a macabre escalation of the show's appeal.

Barry works his way to understanding that never mind the threats, his soul may already be dead, the extraction of sewer gases consuming his very essence. To achieve success, his Talk Radio is not so much a spotlight on filth, but a personal mirror.

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