Why does Talk Radio feel so bland and lifeless? Eric Bogosian anchors the film with a great performance as Barry Champlain, a Tom Leykis/Howard Stern-style shock jock. Oliver Stone, an energetic filmmaker who never shies away from going a few hundred degrees over the top, directed. Yet the film itself is oddly hollow.
Could it be that time has not been kind to Talk Radio, that the nature of the callers and Barry’s reaction to them no longer hold any shock value? This will undoubtedly sound strange, but I have a sense that the main problem with the movie stems from opening it up beyond its stage roots. The film is actually at its best when it focuses on Barry and the callers, and the backstage melodrama surrounding a media conglomerate (represented by the intriguingly ineffectual John Pankow) syndicating Barry’s Dallas-based show nationally. Whenever it strays away from that, attempting to turn into a study of Barry’s many character flaws, it becomes watch-checkingly tedious.
The grueling “character study” portion of the film revolves mainly around Barry’s relationships with two women: Laura (Leslie Hope), the attractive producer he’s currently sleeping with, and Ellen (Ellen Greene), his ex-wife. Once Ellen arrives on the scene, the film grinds to a screeching halt for an extended flashback, contrasting Barry’s rise to radio prominence with the collapse of his marriage. Even though a few moments tied to these flashbacks occur in the third act—notably program director Dan (Alec Baldwin) dismissing Barry as a disposable “suit salesman” (a reference to his pre-radio job) and Ellen trying to liven up the show by calling in, resulting in caustic Barry verbally abusing her—the sequence is very long and adds little to the story beyond seeing Bogosian in a somewhat hilarious Howard Stern wig.
Similarly, the film centers on recurring threats from various redneck callers, many of who are involved in neo-Nazi organizations and have big problems with Barry’s Jewish heritage. Barry reveals himself as surprisingly well-versed in their propaganda, able to easily poke holes in their arguments and dismiss their threats as silly hoaxes. The conversations themselves are lively and engaging, but they have the unfortunate side effect of turning Talk Radio into a “message movie,” leading to an obvious, over-the-top ending that’s frustratingly unearned. The movie’s over 20 years old, but I still have reservations about ruining the ending. Let’s just say the last five minutes could have used the disinterested restraint of latter-day Oliver Stone, not the frothy melodrama of his heyday. With a more subdued ending, the bigotry subplot could have succeeded in tackling its issues subtly.
Although the film spans several days, Bogosian’s stage play takes place over the course of a single night of Barry’s show. Film and theatre are, obviously, different media, and generally straight-up “let’s just film the play”-style adaptations don’t translate well. However, Stone’s directorial style lends itself to a more straightforward adaptation, as evidenced by his skillful handling of the call-in segments that do appear in the film. (Although, on a boring technical note, Stone’s abuse of the split diopter, instead of taking the time to set up proper deep-focus shots, gets distracting—certain shots make it appear as if the background characters have paid a visit from Heaven.) Stone could have easily taken a cue from the play and made a visually compelling, emotionally energetic slice-of-life showing the inner workings of a late-night radio show. Instead, the film breaks up the radio-show scenes, surrounding them with the aforementioned redundant flashbacks, as well as scenes bluntly foreshadowing the ending.
Talk Radio has a number of great moments, and it may be worth seeing for Bogosian’s performance alone. However, the film itself is a disappointment. Fans of Bogosian would do better to check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (that’s not sarcasm—he’s really great in that movie).