Celebrity trumps ideology
It probably hasn't escaped your notice that the publication you're now perusing leans ever-so-slightly to the left. So if you read this paper solely for the pleasure of yelling at it and then stomping on it, then you're almost certainly not an Al Franken fan. On the other hand, if you flip through these here pages and occasionally high-five them as they turn, then you've no doubt been enjoying the second career of the former Saturday Night Live writer-performer as liberal talk show host, best-selling author, and Bill O'Reilly tormentor. As Franken himself puts it, "I'm a little bit showbiz, I'm a little bit journalism."
Actually, he's a lot showbiz, and in the entertaining --- if completely one-sided --- documentary Al Franken: God Spoke, the cameras of Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob trail the left-wing pundit over the course of about a year that finds Franken making new friends, taunting old enemies, and fantasizing about the utopia that will ensue "when Kerry wins." The film opens around the time of the inception of Air America, a liberal radio network on which Franken hosts his talk show, which he had considered titling "The O'Franken Factor" because...well, you know why.
It takes exactly 30 seconds for Franken to invoke the name of his most famous archenemy, Fox News commentator O'Reilly, and God Spoke watches as each man takes shots at the other from the safety of their respective mediums: Franken titling his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them and then slapping O'Reilly's face on the cover, O'Reilly convincing Fox to sue (the judge is still laughing) and gloating on air over the setbacks suffered by the fledgling Air America. Franken also mixes it up with terrifying Republican pin-up Ann Coulter, who fondly recalls Senator Joe McCarthy, as well as the smug Sean Hannity, offering a glimpse behind the stubborn facades of the ultra-conservative analysts.
Much of God Spoke concerns itself with the 2004 presidential campaign, with Franken setting up broadcast camp at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions (he gets gooned at the RNC), attending Democratic fundraisers and parties on both sides. Franken gets a little choked up watching Kerry's concession speech, and we can see the seeds being planted for a 2008 congressional run from his home state of Minnesota for the seat once held by Franken's friend, the late Paul Wellstone, whose memorial service/Democratic pep rally gets offered up here as the reason for Republican control of the Senate. Will it matter that Franken is a comedian by trade? Did anyone care that Reagan was an actor? Show business and politics have much in common, though passion, while necessary for both, should be displayed in one and controlled in the other.
Filmmakers Hegedus and Doob also collaborated on 1993's Clinton campaign documentary The War Room, with Doob as cinematographer and Hegeduscodirecting with her husband, legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, an executive producer here and the individual responsible for 1967's Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back and 1972's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Hegedus and Doob spend time at home with Franken and his wife, Franni, who keeps veritable dossiers on her husband's counterparts to the right and whose no-nonsense approach would lend itself to the demands placed on a political wife. But Franken has much to learn about playing the government game (God Spoke shows him dining with Minnesota's elder statesman Walter Mondale), though Minnesota did once elect a professional wrestler as their governor, so that's a smart place to throw your hat in the ring. As Franken observes, "Celebrity trumps ideology."
Until relatively recently, politics (along with religion and finance) was a topic to be avoided in polite company, but those days are a fuzzy memory. It seems the tiniest bit of fame entitles one to a public forum and adds compelling relevance to even the least informed opinion, though in this era of blogging and YouTube, us lowly serfs possess the means to infiltrate this country's consciousness. So now you get to hear what everyone thinks about everything, whether you want to or not. But would you have it any other way? Thomas Paine is way more eloquent than me: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
Al Franken: God Spoke (R), directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, opens Friday, October 13, at the Little Theatres.