This past week saw the release of Chasing the Light, the epic memoir of legendary filmmaker Oliver Stone. A word like "controversial" doesn’t even begin to describe the work of Stone, whose films have delved deep into hot button political issues and sparked intense debate for decades. Some have decried Stone as a radical conspiracy theorist who indulges in his own historical fantasies, while others consider him to be a noble patriot who ranks among the great American filmmakers of all time.
Stone had his own take on the Kennedy assassination in JFK. He skewered corporate greed with Wall Street and demystified the Vietnam War with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. He explored violence in the media with Natural Born Killers. He’s made films centered on the lives of Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Edward Snowden, Alexander the Great and Jim Morrison.
Stone’s films that play with real people and events often draw the most attention, but he’s also shown an ability to create work that is ahead of its time. No film personifies this more than Talk Radio, Stone’s 1988 chamber piece that explores the complex relationship between an abrasive radio personality and his audience. In 2020, this story about participation in media, toxic masculinity, performative impertinence, mental health stigma and local news coverage is more prevalent than ever.
It’s no secret that ratings for talk and news radio programs are down across the state, with some experts suggesting that listeners are looking for escapism from news updates and political divisiveness. Talk Radio exemplifies those anxieties by showing how absorbing it is for a host to keep his listeners engaged by any means necessary.
Eric Bogosian stars as Barry Champlain, a Jewish radio host based out of Dallas who berates his callers each night with tirades of hatred and sarcasm. Champlain’s callers look to him for reliable nastiness, and throughout the course of his shows, the lines between performance and sincerity become blurred. It’s unclear if Barry talks the way he does because he needs a reaction, or if the everyday grind of listening to these callers has taken a real toll on him.
“I'm a hypocrite,” he admits at one point. “I ask for sincerity, and I lie. I denounce the system as I embrace it. I want money and power and prestige. I want ratings and success, and I don't give a damn about you, or the world. That's the truth. For that I could say I'm sorry, but I won't.”
What makes Talk Radio so significant for its time is how it deals with the cult of personality that often dominates media viewership. Champlain’s callers aren’t calling because they’re interested in his viewpoints or even his outlandish statements. They’re addicted to him. One caller calls to tell Champlain about her obsession with his show, but when pressed for details, she can’t name anything other than how she “loves everything about (him).”
Stone explores how dominating this on-air persona can be. Champlain receives a barrage of vitriolic calls every night from listeners who despise him and often sling anti-Semitic insults his way. Champlain takes each call in stride, aiming to never show a sign of vulnerability, as that would contrast with the person he is presenting himself as.
Any moment of sincerity feels like a loss from Champlain. When he shows genuine concern for a caller who claims to be nearing an overdose, Champlain quickly learns he’s been duped by a particularly vile prankster. The radio host becomes angry, not just because he’s been deceived, but because the concern he showed is at odds with the uncaring facade he has constructed for himself.
A common talking point in today’s political discourse links the rise of radicalization as a result of extremist movements that are passed along through social media channels, often preying upon easily impressionable listeners. Champlain begins to recognize this process for himself throughout the course of Talk Radio, in which he realizes that many of his viewers view his program unironically and treat his most absurd hyperboles as a form of gospel.
Champlain’s boss Dan (played by a young Alec Baldwin) tells him that it’s only a job, but throughout the course of the film the audience learns how all-consuming the work has become. A desperate Champlain calls his ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) at one point asking for help with his depression, but when she calls him on air, he treats her with the same resentment that he does any other caller. Champlain’s staff are horrified at the fact that he would use his prior relationship as material for his show, but for Champlain, they have become the same thing.
The notion of Jewish anxiety looms over the film; Champlain is a Jewish man with leftist views, and he’s often at odds with his conservative viewers. Even if he’s able to lampoon his abusers with a clever one-liner, Stone notes the real danger that Champlain is in, particularly as one caller makes a bomb threat while espousing hate speech. Even if Champlain isn’t afraid to put himself out there, it’s clear that he’s facing an uphill battle every day.
Although the story is loosely based on the life of the Denver radio host Alan Berg, its relevance about the prevalence of white nationalism feels pertinent today. Champlain’s anxieties stem from the fact that his tormentors confront him on open airwaves, thus giving a voice to others who are inspired by hate speech. In a time when platforms like Twitter and Facebook are slow to ban calls to violence, Champlain’s experience feels less like an anomaly and more like a precedent.
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Despite the attention he receives, Champlain is very much alone, and Stone’s notion that those with the most recognition are often the most isolated was a novel theme in the pre-internet era. Conversations about the impact of social media on mental health often note how online interactions can lead to a false sense of well-being, and Talk Radio explores the very idea of using superficial relationships as a coping method.
If many of Stone’s films feel like a rallying cry or a call to action, Talk Radio is among his more nuanced and meditative works. The film certainly has pity for Champlain, but it doesn’t condone his actions. If anything, Talk Radio aims to explore how hostile media environments create people like Champlain, and how people are seduced into granting him any power.
A cautionary tale and a useful tool in exploring the ways in which strangers interact, Talk Radio is a forgotten classic that sheds some insight into what discourse has become. As Stone’s entire filmography is reconsidered as his memoir is celebrated, Talk Radio deserves to be appreciated for the brilliant work that it is.
Talk Radio made its streaming debut on Peacock. It can be viewed for free there.