Throwback Thursday: The Power of Media as Seen through the Mouth of Talk Radio

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

This month for Throwback Thursday, we’re taking a look at mass media this month and how coverage of newsworthy items colors our views of a particular story. Last week was Dog Day Afternoon, and this week I’d like to shine the light on a gem of a film from 1988 by director Oliver Stone, Talk Radio.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Quad Cinema poster.

Adapted from the stage play by Eric Bogosian and based on the assassination of radio host Alan Berg, this film primarily takes place in the studio of a Dallas, Texas, radio station. You might think a movie taking place in one room might be boring, but Stone allows the dialogue to create peaks and valleys in the drama and even comes up with some well-shot camera angles and movement cheats to add to the tension.

Bogosian himself plays Barry Champlain, a Jewish shock jock with a sharp mind and a wicked tongue. He verbally lashes his listeners who call in, trying to get them to focus on real-world issues and to think outside their narrow mindsets—he looks at it as trying to change the world, but his listeners solely look at it as entertainment. Barry’s boss is trying to close a deal to get the show broadcast nationally, and the film takes place over a few nights as Barry comes to terms with the implications of that deal and what his audience actually expects.

Eric Bogosian as Barry, with headphones on

Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain.

Secondary characters played by Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, John C. McGinley, and Michael Wincott help to support the turmoil that Barry is feeling. They do it well, but this is all Bogosian’s show. You can see the turmoil in his face as he comes to terms with his place in society, and that sincerity almost comes through in his voice. It reminds me of the Kennedy/Nixon debates—no, I wasn’t alive for them, but I did learn about them back in the day. For those who didn’t, Kennedy clearly won among those who watched the debate on TV, but surprisingly for those that listened on the radio, Nixon was the clear favorite. The visual aspect of presentation is so important to us as an audience that we often focus on that over the message actually being delivered. How this translates to talk radio, where there’s nothing but the aural element, you would think means that the message becomes clearer, but in Talk Radio it seems to be even more diluted. Real talk ends up being entertainment.

This is shown in the phone conversations with Wincott’s character, who ends up coming into the studio. He makes prank calls to Barry’s show saying that he thinks his girlfriend has ODed, and the station staff try to take the calls seriously, but when he comes into the studio to be on air with Barry we realize that he thinks everything the host says is for entertainment value and not to be taken seriously. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Barry.

Michael Wincott in Talk Radio

Michael Wincott—yes, Top Dollar from The Crow

We’re also given some flashbacks that take us out of the station—these scenes are not in the play, and they try to show Barry’s rise to where he is now and the fall of his marriage because of it. In one of the few emotionally honest moments of the movie, Barry confronts his wife over the air because he can’t talk honestly with her in real life. It ends up being another crippling moment for him because he feels he has to give his audience what they want.

Ellen Greene on the phone, superimposed over Bogosian

Ellen Greene (yes, from Little Shop of Horrors) calls in.

In one of his final on-air tirades, the DJ desk Barry is stationed at rotates around the studio in ever-increasing motion so that we can see out of all the windows and watch the reactions of the various station staff members. This is one of the few moments in which Stone deliberately breaks the “reality” wall and infuses an impossible camera shot on top of it. In other moments, Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson practically makes us smell the burning ozone as the on-air lights turn on. These moments all add to the realism of the film by making them hyperreal.

If you find yourself with some extra time and want to see an underrated Oliver Stone film that doesn’t involve conspiracies, Talk Radio is a great one to watch. And if you ever hear of a theater company producing the play I would highly recommend checking the stage version out; it’s a unique experience.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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