Two powder kegs of angry energy — director Oliver Stone and actor/writer Eric Bogosian — joined together in 1988 for this character study set during the late ’80s media explosion, a combustible drama about a self-important talk radio host (Bogosian) on the road to disaster. With every ranting Bogosian monologue, with every listener phone call of derision or adoration, both actor and director keep their audience riveted. It’s an impressive feat considering that the bulk of Talk Radio takes place in a single radio studio.
Bogosian is Barry Champlain, a brilliant loudmouth gab machine hosting a popular nightly talk show filled with his strong opinions and whack-job listeners. One fears her garbage disposal. One begs to visit Barry at the studio. And one (many?) offer the Jewish host death threats in the name of Nazism.
The script, created by Bogosian and Stone, is based on a couple of sources including Bogosian’s play and a book chronicling the 1984 murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg. Whether you’re aware of this tragic true-life connection or not, the tension that Stone and Bogosian design is affecting and, at times, nearly unbearable, as we wait for what seems to be inevitable: the destruction of Barry Champlain.
But it might not take some neo-Nazi to get it done. Champlain himself could be the poster boy for self-destruction, high enough on success to piss on his own marriage, thick enough to attempt a salient argument with a listener he meets at a basketball game. You always get the feeling that Champlain’s worst enemy is himself, and that Bogosian’s creation is moments away from imploding.
Before Talk Radio, Stone had just commented on the ugly perils of war (Platoon, 1986) and the disgust of corporate excess (Wall Street, 1987), so this canvas appears to be almost small for his typical breadth of commentary. But with a protagonist’s abusive tendencies and the lonely aimless ramblings of an unseen listening audience, Stone is still shoving something important in our face: the loss of civility. Not decency — that’s too vague and conservative an ideal for a thinker like Stone — just civility. He asks an accepting audience, both in the film and in the theater: How much crap will you take, and why?
Aside from broad commentary, Stone’s crafty, well-plotted direction (with Stewart Copeland’s stunning music) goes far to illuminate Champlain’s anger and ultimate self-realization. As with Wall Street, Stone’s camera seems to be moving all of the time, flowing back and forth within tight spaces, enveloping characters to elevate pressure, and racking focus to reveal images against the studio glass. The studio becomes the jury room in Twelve Angry Men, the sub in Das Boot.
When the story does take us away from the radio station to develop Champlain’s pained lunatic character, returning for subsequent scenes has an air of excitement and a looming sense of doom. At the workplace, Champlain regularly ignores the old ‘don’t shit where you eat’ adage, sleeping with his producer and pissing off his boss (Alec Baldwin, showing hints of Glengarry Glen Ross intensity).
Bogosian inhabits Champlain like a man possessed. During the verbal volley with the woman at the basketball game, he tilts his head, dog-like, while awaiting an answer, keeping his face close to the woman, wanting to get up her nose, into her brain. Even without words, Bogosian creates an enormous outward aggression, an accepted sign of the times for some talk hosts in the ’80s. While TV’s screaming and shouting may have given way to people eating animal innards for cash, Talk Radio still resonates with comments on fame, censorship, and a lonely audience living on blind faith.