Steve Leftridge examines the expose of the talk radio shock jocks reaching national celebrity in the ‘80s
Oliver Stone didn’t declare himself the King of the World after winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Platoon, but, after following Platoon with the success of Wall Street, Stone clearly had his choice of projects in 1988. However, before the run of ambitious and controversial films that would follow, Stone made one of his smallest-scale films with Talk Radio. In adapting Eric Bogosian’s acclaimed play, Stone and the playwright added details from Stephen Singular’s biography of Alan Berg, a Denver radio host murdered in his own driveway by a neo-Nazi group in 1984. Shot in four weeks in Dallas, almost entirely in a warehouse converted into a radio station, the film is Stone’s examination of Reagan-era American culture through the transmission of a radio talk show in the middle of a Texas night.
Every aspect of the modern American cesspool that the film takes in—neuroses, self-destruction, corporate machinations, racism, schizophrenia, violence, stupidity—is filtered through Barry Champlain, the acerbic host of Dallas radio’s top-rated show, “Night Talk”. Barry, as his theme music warns you (or promises), is bad to the bone, in more ways than one. Barry is all of the things Americans desire in their highest-paid talk-radio hosts: loud, opinionated, short-tempered, condescending, and rude.
Those who call in to talk to Barry represent a cross-section of frightening insomniacs. These folks are stock-character masochists, calling in for a fresh Barry pole-axing. Hicks, derelicts, rapists, burnouts, bigots, simpletons—they all call in and convince Barry that, as he says, “this country is rotten to the core”. The voices of the night in one American city provide Barry with enough bile to keep him going, but it’s also a relationship that seems to be eating him alive. “I’m glad people like Kent are out there, and I’m in here,” Barry claims after one particularly gruesome call, yet when Barry spits vitriol about the decay of the American scene, he looks and sounds like a man on a suicide mission to be consumed by it.
All the while, people watch Barry from behind glass. He is an animal trapped in a cage, talking, chain-smoking, and watching people watch him. Stone creates a vortex of claustrophobia, circling Barry in arc shots with the camera or, in Barry’s final epic rant, rotating the background to circle a solitary Barry. Despite these occasional flourishes, the scenes of Barry at work—the bulk of the film—capture the single-set design of the stage show, and Stone is mostly content to stay out of the way and let Bogosian work.
It’s a sizzling performance. Bogosion crawls so deep into the troubled psyche of his creation, it’s impossible to distinguish between the two, especially given the frantic pace of shooting, as Bogosian looks exhausted and demented by the end of the film. Pushing Barry further over the edge is his boss, played with drippy smarm by Alec Baldwin, who kisses the ass of the corporate radio giant, Metrowave, interested in taking Barry and “Night Talk” to the syndication big leagues. Barry, however, is just self-destructive enough to raise the shock-talk ante and scare Metrowave away, that is if he isn’t too busy verbally mutilating his ex-wife, ruining his chance at reconciliation with her. Or goading his audiences into killing him.
Amid the neon lights and perms and skinny ties in Talk Radio, what holds up is the prescient examination of the downward spiral of America’s cultural perversity, not the least of all in the ways we communicate and the fascination we have with mutual abuse. Callers are essentially begging to be insulted and vilified by Barry, and thousands of others listen in for nightly doses of public humiliation. In an age of message-board flame wars, reality-television shouting matches, and muckumentary exercises in embarrassment, Talk Radio, for its time, was not only a table-turning expose of the Howard Sterns or Don Imuses reaching national celebrity at the time, but a dizzying, complex view of a country going straight to hell and one fascinated by watching it happen.