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Al Franken - God Spoke

Director: Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus
Cast: Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Sean Hannity, Michael Medved

(Pennebaker Hegedus; US DVD: 24 Apr 2007)

This 90-minute doc from filmmakers Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com) follows satirist, political gadfly, and would-be politician Al Franken for a period of about a year – from just before he launched his show on the Air America radio network through the 2004 presidential election.  Those were heady days for the American Left, when it seemed the country was ripe for regime change, and John Kerry was headed for the White House. Fate, it would seem, had different plans, and here we are today in the Grim Year of 2007 – still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, still laboring through a national malaise that has become nearly hallucinatory in its relentlessness.


Of course, that’s just one point of view. But it’s likely to be the point of view for anyone interested in checking out this doc in the first place. Franken detractors, or right-leaning persons in general, will likely find God Spoke an unpleasant viewing experience. It’s 90 minutes of Al Franken doing what Al Franken does – articulately baiting and berating the political right.  The Franken that appears here is not much different than the persona we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. He’s intelligent, funny, passionate, and personable. He also comes across as incredibly busy. Franken keeps up a hectic speaking schedule, while still finding time to gate-crash Republican events, headline media industry conventions, and host a daily radio show.


If there is one surprising element, it’s the depth—and the rather fiery core—of Franken’s political beliefs. Several scenes reveal him dropping the cool satirist mask and expressing his genuine outrage at our national state of affairs. In one telling scene, a weary-looking Franken is pitching his new radio show to the brass underwriting the fledgling Air America network. They want to know, in his words, just what the program is going to be about. After a moment of deliberation, Franken opts for directness: “It’s about answering these fuckheads that have been on the air, and lying, and delivering this simplistic black-and-white babble about how the world works. As if they know something. Sean Hannity does not know a thing. Rush Limbaugh does not know a thing.”


It’s a mistake to lump Franken in with other progressive media commentators and rabble-rousers; to see him as simply the Left’s answer to Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. There are other radio personalities that fit that bill.  Stephanie Miller, syndicated by Jones Radio Networks, runs her show like a local “morning zoo” with bad jokes, dopey sound effects, and mindlessly partisan banter. Franken’s is a fundamentally different act: He knows the score, has done his homework, and more often than not simply allows the right-wing commentators to hang themselves with their own words. As he explains to a group of college students, “I take what they say and use it against them. What I do is jujitsu. They say something ridiculous, and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. That’s my job.”


Franken’s radio show was often deliberately goofy, but it was also consistently meaty and well-informed. It’s interesting to see him here on the formative days of the show, learning the technical basics of radio, and shaping what would later become Air America’s flagship program.


Sadly for the network, and for those who appreciated the show’s brand of articulate political debate, Franken recently closed shop on his radio endeavors to run for senator in Minnesota. Toward the end of God Spoke, we get some insight into Franken’s aspirations, and he seems at best ambivalent about the idea of running for political office. The question looms, for him and for the viewer: Where can the media figure that is Al Franken be most effective—on the sidelines as a satirist and pundit, or within the machine itself? Time will tell.


The filmmakers take a vérité -style approach, stitching together footage both old and new, with no voiceover and very little in the way of structural intent. There are some flashbacks to old Saturday Night Live sketches, and segments from Franken’s overseas USO tours. Several scenes depict Franken squaring off with rivals such as Michael Medved, Ann Coulter, and Bill O’Reilly. The DVD extras are rather sparse – 12 minutes of extra scenes, some trailers, and filmmaker biographies.


In the end, it never really adds up to anything. The conspicuous lack of resolution results in a documentary that feels strangely aimless. It seems likely that the filmmakers were anticipating a Democratic win in 2004, in which case their film would have a triumphant event for thematic closure – progressive banner-waver Franken heralds a New Day in America! The incumbent victory seems to have left Franken, and the filmmakers, somewhat adrift. A familiar feeling for many viewers, probably. Still, Franken is a smart and engaging companion, pleasant enough to be around for an hour-and-a-half. Those inclined to watch God Spoke are likely to enjoy it thoroughly. You know who you are.

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Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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