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‘Talk Radio’ (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 21, 1988
Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio" has an intimidating density. It's stuffed with attitudes, ideas, positions, prejudices, beliefs, theories. And nonstop talk. Watching it, you feel like you've got voices in your head, voices that you can't shake.
Barry Champlain can't clear the voices out of his head either, and they're making him sick. As the host of a late-night call-in radio show, Champlain, played by Eric Bogosian, opens his mike to the Dallas crazies, inviting them to talk to him, to get whatever is bothering them off their chests. But Champlain is no practitioner of motherly pop psychology. His mission isn't to brush away the bad thoughts and send his listeners off to a tidy sleep. A cross between Lenny Bruce and Morton Downey Jr., Champlain is an anger artist, and his dominant mode is attack. "What possible interest do you think your personal adventures in surgery would hold for my listeners?," he snaps at a transsexual before hanging up. He heats up the air with cynicism and abuse, and everybody's a target.
"Talk Radio" has the loony intensity of those impassioned conspiracy theorists who look out at the world and see patterns of corruption spreading in all directions. Like "Platoon" and "Wall Street," it's another of Stone's wake-up calls to America. Basically, the picture, which Stone and his writer-star adapted from Bogosian's off-Broadway theater piece and Stephen Singular's book "Talked to Death," which dealt with the 1984 assassination of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg, is a rant, a freak-out. Its point of view is that the late-night airwaves put the uncensored American character on display. Tune in, it tells us, and plunge into the sewer of the American id, into bigotry, pathology, rage, phobias, anti-Semitism, emotional paralysis, dread, loneliness, schizophrenia and sheer epic empty-headedness. One caller rings up to tell Champlain she's afraid of her mother's garbage disposal; another calls, strung out from a days-long drug binge with his girlfriend, to say that he can't get her to wake up, that she's turning blue, that he thinks she's dead. Barry's reaction? Big deal.
The irony is that everybody seems to crave the abuse. Callers are waiting in line to get verbally slapped around by Barry Champlain, "the man you love to love," and based on the latest ratings, his audience has grown to a point that a network wants to broadcast the program nationwide. Rather than pleasing him, though, the prospect seems to spur the host to greater perversity. And when the sponsors turn chicken and start to back away, he jacks the intensity a notch higher, urging his audience to "give me your best shot."
Bogosian's volatile performance is the picture's staticky center. As Champlain, he's on camera constantly and constantly talking. The character that the actor creates here is one who's juiced by the danger of controversy. He's a hate junkie, and we're supposed to be moved by the pain he suffers at the hands of fools and sentimentalists who don't have his toughness and courage, and won't look at life as the cold, cruel thing it is. Bogosian does impressive work here, but for the most part the emotional range of the character is too limited -- Barry oscillates between enraged and more enraged -- for us to get a sense of the sort of talent he has.
The supporting cast of Ellen Greene, who plays Barry's ex-wife, Alec Baldwin, who plays his boss, and Leslie Hope, who plays his girlfriend, exists only as mirrors. (Greene seems the most uncomfortable with this; she keeps thinking she's a real person.) Clearly, Bogosian can play anger, but he's also good at showing the fear that underlies the talk-show host'srage. To emphasize this, the director shoots his star from close in, focusing on his panicky green eyes, and in long shot, through the glass partitions surrounding his studio, so that he resembles an animal trapped in a glass cage.
Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson give the movie a swirling, claustrophobic feel, and about halfway through you feel desperate for fresh air, for a natural color and natural light. Is it gripping? I suppose so, but then even the most lurid spectacles are compelling on one level or another, even if the hold they exert is a dubious one. Perhaps with another director the material might have had some integrity. Like "Mississippi Burning" director Alan Parker (who directed Stone's script for "Midnight Express"), Stone is a hysteric. He glories in the depravity that pours out over the airwaves. What he wants most of all is a reaction, and he's not picky about how he gets it. He makes sure that all of our buttons get punched.
There's no question that the bigotry and shallowness exist out there in the American night, but there's no proportion in Stone's presentation. Stone strains too hard to make his points and in the process distorts them, undermines them. Still, Stone would probably be proud that he's made a picture that audiences may want to ward off and escape from. In that sense, he seems to see himself as being just like Champlain -- a teller of stern and disquieting truths.
"Talk Radio" is rated R and contains violent, abusive language, some graphic violence and adult situations.
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