Talk Radio (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Dallas talk show radio, managed by Dan (Alec Baldwin), is in its last days before it broadcasts nationwide. This does not stop Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian), a former suit salesperson, from delivering his usual brutally honest remarks that inspire callers to respond to him and his opinions with great indignation.
Based on a novel by Stephen Singular and directed by Oliver Stone, “Talk Radio” is a mesmerizing piece of work because it is able to take all sorts of vitriolic opinions and shove them in our ears. It is impossible to come out of this film without feeling shaken or moved, positively or negatively, by the phone calls.
One of the many standout scenes involves a group of Neo-Nazis who sends Barry a package. They claim that there is a bomb inside–a present for a “faggot-loving, nigger-loving” Jew who deserves to be hanged. Instead of calling the proper authorities, the daring radio host decides to call it a bluff. As Barry carefully opens the box while on the air, we hear a strange woman rambling on about putting her hand inside a garbage disposal and her fear of it suddenly turning on.
That is what I loved about the film: it does not leave much room for us to escape and so we are enveloped in the experience. If we focus our attention on the images, we are faced with a bomb going off. If we shift our attention to the sounds, our minds paint a picture of a woman who just might lose a limb. The images presented to us are strong, at times unbearable, and the sounds we hear force us to look at the images that we wish to avert our eyes from in the first place.
Whenever Barry is on the air, my eyes focused on his face as he deals with different and volatile personalities. The picture would not have been as captivating without Bogosian’s very intense performance. He is able to communicate so much with wrinkling his forehead just a little or bulging his eyes for a few carefully chosen seconds. Although he constantly screams and yells out of frustration in order to get his point across, I craved to hear what scandalous thing he is going to say next. In a way, it feels as though we are one of his night listeners.
When Barry is not in the studio, he spends time with his ex-wife, Ellen (Ellen Greene), who he invites to come visit to celebrate the radio program’s promotion. It is a welcome change of pace because the former couple’s interactions have a lot of joy. Their history may not have been pretty (Ellen caught Barry with another woman in their former house) but their reunion feels fresh because they want to make it work. There is a different type of tension embedded in the possible romantic reconnection.
“Talk Radio” brings up important questions and implications about the responsibility that we have–and should have–when we choose to exercise our freedom of speech. The film exposes all sorts of dirty laundry. Each phone call is funny, strange, scary, maddening, and, in its own sick way, enlightening. Despite the picture being released in the 1980s, it is more relevant than ever because regular folks, who don’t necessarily have to be smart, sensitive or have any sort of filter, now have the access to broadcast anything they want to with the advent of cell phones’ partnership with social media.