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Long before the immediacy of the internet and its attendant social media platforms, impotent rage and loose-lipped hatred had another home in America: talk radio. While the form itself isn’t dead — look no further than the continued popularity of everyone from Howard Stern to Glenn Beck — the world has many other more enticing outlets for emotional release. But the underlying desire for unfettered, rage-fueled outbursts remains, and Oliver Stone’s searing 1988 drama “Talk Radio” (sandwiched between his better-known hits “Wall Street” and “Born on the Fourth of July”) helps explain the market for unfiltered voices in whatever form they take.
The movie stars Eric Bogosian, who adapted his own stage play of the same name alongside Stone — and that history comes across in the actor’s credible transformation. Less than one year after debuting his play off-Broadway, Bogosian teamed with Stone to turn his Pulitzer Prize-nominated production into a bigger, more urgent affair. Bogosian again stars as Barry Champlain, a motor-mouthed talk radio host who dominates the Dallas airwaves (the play was set in Cleveland) and is on the cusp of going national (a surprise he does not take well).
Unspooling over the course of just four days, Stone’s film finds Barry crumbling under the pressure of going big time and the horrific stress of fielding unwell phone calls from his loyal following each night. Loosely based on the bravado personalities of other popular hosts of the time — Bogosian reportedly studied Tom Leykis’ show when it came time to expand on his play — Barry is a whip-smart numbers geek who leans liberal and attracts plenty of nuts who, well, don’t.
“Talk Radio” wasn’t the only film of the era to tackle its subject: Earlier in 1988, Micheal Ritchie’s Dan Aykroyd-starring comedy “The Couch Trip” hit theaters, and just four years later, Dolly Parton starred in the zippy “Straight Talk.” Of course, a decade later, Stern got his own movie in the form of Betty Thomas’ biopic “Private Parts.” But Stone’s film is the most biting of those, and it’s devastating to watch Barry get worn down to the point of an on-air breakdown by the absolute garbage spewed at him by seemingly everyday people on a nightly basis. The station brass, however, sees it as a triumph.
While the play was only set during one marathon broadcast, Stone’s film has the space for two different episodes of Barry’s show, which illuminates how repetitive it is both in content (rage, racism, sexism, and more than a few admissions of deviant criminal behavior) and callers. It’s the same people, night after night, defined by the same impulse to share their worst thoughts and opinions with a wide audience. It would make anyone crazy.
Not every deviation and expansion that Stone and Bogosian made to the original source works; for instance, flashbacks to how Barry ended up in his position (plus, what he did to screw things up with his ex-wife Ellen, played by Ellen Greene) are entertaining but not at all necessary, and only serve to dilute the film’s otherwise freight train-fast power. Still, others are smart, and a quick trip to deliver a speech at a local college offers dizzying insight into how the public perceives Barry (at least, well, in public).
At night, Barry is the king, fielding dozens of calls from faceless folks who are empowered to offer up seething, vile thoughts, but in the cold light of day, he’s booed offstage, reduced to an emblem of everything that’s wrong with the world. It’s all too easy to yield to the most base of impulses when no one can see your face, and no one knows that better than Barry. That, it seems, hasn’t changed at all.
The film builds up to a shocking ending (and eagle-eyed viewers will be tipped off by opening credits noting that Bogosian and Stone also based the screenplay on Stephen Singular’s non-fiction book “Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg”) and it remains unsettling how possible it is today. The movie doesn’t offer easy outs or feel-good conclusions, instead forcing its viewers to sit with the inevitable results of filling your head with rage and recognizing that it deserves to have a voice.