Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio is about a vulgar, insolent radio show host who becomes inundated by the detestation of his loathsome listeners prior to announcing that his broadcast will be picked up for national syndication. Talk Radio is based on a play written by Eric Bogosian (Uncut Gems, Under Siege 2) and Tad Savinar, as well as the book ‘Talked to Death’ by Stephen Singular. The opening images of the filmsets up the geography of Dallas in West Texas by hearing the voice of Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) on the air as the afterglow of sunset during magic hour settles with a helicopter shot of downtown propelling around the neon lights blinking on the skyscrapers. Barry is the host of a show called ‘Night Talk’, who makes statements referring to the American conscience like, “We live in a country where pornography meets slasher films.” This film was released in 1988, and many of the controversial statements written by Eric Bogosian and Oliver Stone are relatively true in contemporary American culture, with points of view that have stood the test of time.
Over the opening credits we see everything that occurs behind the scenes. We see almost all of Barry’s crew, like Stu (John C. McGinley) and insert shots of equipment in the studio as Barry takes calls from his listeners through the reflections in the soundproof glass. With the Dallas skyscrapers through the window, his boss Dan (alec baldwin) observes Barry in the distance, as he talks through the microphone in the studio. This is all done creatively in one frame by the legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson (Casino, Kill Bill), who used a split-diopter on the camera, allowing subjects in the foreground juxtaposed with images in the background to appear in-focus, adding a bizarre look that is visually appealing while remaining non-distractive. A racist anonymous caller named Chet continuously threatens Barry. We can tell by his vocal tone that he’s different from the other callers, and he may even be serious with his claims. Barry hangs up on him abruptly, and ends his show with the line, “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can leave permanent damage.” As we get the feel that he has haters who know claim to know what he looks like and know where he lives, resulting in death threats. Barry receives a package consisting of a dead rat laying on top of a swastika flag. People want Barry dead and we can begin to understand why. He’s rude, condescending behavior belittles people when he refrains to remember that there are a lot of smarter people than him in the world, but Barry’s intellectual vanity doesn’t come off as breathtaking, it comes off as banal.
Eric Bogosian’s Barry Champlain talks rapidly at a mile a minute with perfect articulation and enunciation. We can see the wheels in his head spinning perpetually, since he’s been talking consistently for hours on end to hundreds of callers for decades, on a daily basis. There’s not a single personality type that Barry can’t communicate with. In between advertisement breaks during ‘Night Talk’, Barry gets into an argument with longtime partner Stu, his control room operator who chooses which calls to take, regarding the deadbeats and scumbags that Stu keeps approving of getting on air. Barry then confronts Dan, his boss, “I feel like I’m auditioning for my own job out there.” Referring to Dietz (John Pankow) the man responsible for getting Barry’s show to air nationally. Barry operates on momentum, he carries the energy and tone from the previous conversation on to the next caller, in a perpetual state, until his eyes bug-out like his brain is about to implode. This is a provocative film with heated debates and controversial racial comments from callers like, “I like you Jews.” To which Barry rebuts, “Well, I like you blacks, I think everyone should have one.” The conversation continues in a shout fest with rebuttals about how the Jewish and African/Americans hate each other and there’s no solution, just Barry hanging up whenever he pleases.
Oliver Stone keeps the excitement heightened with an ethereal mystery by cutting with an unvarying editing pace between Barry, Stu and Dan behind the control room glass, the city skyscrapers with multiple shots that have so much information in them, we feel like there’s plenty to observe while listening to the rapidity of dialogue in the debates between Barry and one of his dozens of callers we have the pleasure of eavesdropping on. But people hate Barry. His ex-wife left him because she caught him cheating. He’s rude to his current girlfriend and show producer Laura (Leslie Hope), his listeners pity him and worst of all, he hates himself. This notion is solidified when Barry visit a college basketball game with Laura because he was hired to make an announcement in front of thousands of fans at the game. He gets booed by the crowd and heckled by listeners of his show in the stands who come up to him for autographs. He seems to love their hate because to him they are masochists if they continue to listen to his show, all the while hating him. One can imagine that when you’re on the phone all day, talking to hundreds of people, regardless if you’re a radio show host, phone operator or salesman, you can’t keep all of your customer’s satisfied. Ten percent will like you, another ten will hate you, and the 80 that are indifferent will most likely lean toward the hate, resulting in Barry, a popular man who creates a radio show with provocative and controversial content that keeps the listeners returning to him even when they hate him. “You’ve got success. The most important thing is you got to start loving yourself.” His ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) tells him. “I’m glad you take it all so seriously Barry, you’ve got to learn when to stop or it’s going to kill you.” His boss Dan says. But, none of it seems to get through to Barry. He’s unchangeable and at the point of no return.
The radio show ‘Night Talk’ (which would have been a better title for the film) discusses topics about race, religion, the holocaust, Zionism, debates about taxes and American support for Israel, interracial marriages, homosexual school-teachers, financial accountability, Jewish media control and intellectual debates with controversial rebuttals that often spark outrageous laughter and shock. Considering this film was released 1988, when revisiting it three decades later, one can see how far the American culture has evolved since then. Whether or not we’ve progressed or going backwards. Listeners penetrate his mind and he penetrates theirs in return. Oliver Stone does an iconic, climactic, 360 degree shot where the camera revolves around Barry delivering a powerful monologue. Some of his listeners think he’s an entertaining prankster when he’s unsmiling and grave with his painstaking ideas. Talk Radio is filled with witty humor, controversy, edginess and the suspension of information leaving us mystified with anticipation in what will happen to Barry, once it’s all said and done. Oliver Stone implements various of cinematic ideas while creating a nocturnal ambiance amid the downtown skyscrapers of Dallas. He crafts a snug, intimate atmosphere leaving us with the sensation of eavesdropping on what occurs behind the curtains of a nightly radio show while amplifying our senses by overhearing hurried expressions of debate in conjunction with taking us into the life and times of a city that represented the heartbeat of America. Talk Radio is the hidden gem of Oliver Stone’s filmography and if you’re going to sit down to view this film, make sure you do it at night.