Universal // 1988 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gary Militzer (Retired) // November 8th, 2000
The last neighborhood in America.
Oliver Stone's Talk Radio is based on actor/writer Eric Bogosian's New York one-set stage smash of the same name. For the film adaptation, Bogosian and screenwriter/director Stone expanded upon this source material, adding further personal detail drawn from Stephen Singular's book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg, about a popular controversial Denver talk show host gunned down by neo-Nazis in 1984. This fascinating, under-appreciated take on shock radio, from the self-important host whose armor has begun to crack to the behind-the-scenes big-bucks business machinations to the ignorant cult of listeners themselves, holds up amazingly well in today's tabloid-media times, especially since these loudmouth, combative, pseudo-controversial talk show hosts are now literally a dime a dozen within nearly all current radio markets. Oliver Stone was really in the midst of a particularly creative stage, and at the peak of his directorial prowess, with his cinematic output during this period; Talk Radio came on the heels of his amazing Platoon, Wall Street, and Salvador, and just prior to Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Natural Born Killers. This bitingly, blackly, intensely, scarily funny film is full of typical Stone-ian social commentary, wonderful performances, fantastic camerawork, and a tight, intelligent screenplay full of sharp dialogue, and presents a starkly etched character portrait of a man living alone atop the razor-sharp edges of personal self-hatred, singularly cohabitating with the enemy on a nightly basis.
Bogosian stars as, nay, is Barry Champlain, the abrasive, flamboyant talk-radio host of Night Talk, a Dallas radio call-in show. Dr. Frasier Crane he is not; he revels in verbally sparring with, and incessantly putting down, his listening audience of confused, dejected, angry, and even potentially dangerous souls. Indeed, Barry's signature move is that he selfishly hangs up on most of his many callers and they keep calling back for more abuse from their acerbic host. They have a sort of symbiotic relationship and mutual need for each other, feeding off the remnants of their respective inner loneliness and outward hatred, an irony not lost in this film.
Talk Radio is set over the course of one particularly crucial weekend in the life of this outspoken host. Barry discovers that his controversial yet immensely popular local show is about to be potentially picked up for national syndication by a corporate conglomerate of broadcast stations, which means more money, greater fame, and a larger listening base. However, all is not peachy keen in his world because, on top of troubles brewing in his love life (his romantic entanglement with his much-younger and less world-weary show producer is in its unfulfilling final stages) and realistic fears that the current management at the network will now try to soften his brash, in-your-face style and alter the content of his show, he has to deal with an anonymous, fanatical neo-Nazi person or group that has targeted him for his forthright opinions that run contra their beliefs. When his supportive ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) flies down to Dallas to be there with Barry during what should be a time of celebration, he instead subjects his ex-wife and co-workers to a darkly comic on-air marathon bout of compulsive, self-destructive verbal risk-taking with his unstable radio audience.
Talk Radio is a very good film. Bogosian is a marvel as a guy whose elaborate rudeness in his cocky public persona covers a wealth of insecurities and inner self-loathing. It is this dichotomy that comes through in manic snippets of provocative dialogue interspersed with telling flashbacks that give us a glimpse at what Barry was like before his hateful self-destruction. Bogosian's demanding, bravura performance truly runs the full gamut of emotions and really adds dimension and depth to what could have been a totally one-note character and role. In particular, watch Bogosian's eyes and facial inflections during his jarring climactic monologue and on-air near-nervous breakdown; it is truly tour de force acting at its finest.
Just as Michael Mann was able to bring a certain unexpected energy to material that wouldn't seem to necessitate it in The Insider, Oliver Stone, with his fluid camera movements, is able to bring an effective forcefulness of expression to the confined, claustrophobic radio station setting that most of this downward spiral takes place in. Stone's masterful direction, in effect, makes watching a radio talk show for nearly two hours equal parts engrossing, thought-provoking, and visually absorbing with its charged, kinetic pace.
The print used by Universal for this anamorphic widescreen transfer was in excellent shape with only a couple of noticeable scratches and specks. Overall, the image was pretty sharp and nicely detailed; the colors were vibrant when necessary or muted when required (as in the flashback sequences, where this washed-out look was intentionally done for creative effect), the flesh tones were particularly natural without any noticeable oversaturation, the black levels were deep and solid and the contrast was very good. On the whole, I was rather impressed with the fantastic job Universal did with this clean transfer.
Talk Radio looks good, and it sounds fine to boot. Although it only comes encoded with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, this is certainly not the kind of film that requires a sonically dynamic soundtrack. Dialogue was clear and I did not hear any background noise or distortion, and well-recorded conversations are all that is needed in this instance. The only time the sound mix truly shines and gives the speakers a minor workout is during the sequence where a raucous sports crowd voraciously boos Barry during a celebrity public appearance.
Unfortunately, Talk Radio is glaringly lacking in the way of supplemental materials. On this DVD we have just a few pages of production notes and generic cast and filmmaker's biographies. That's really it. This is one of those cases where fans of the film have to just be happy with the fact that they can now view a great film at home in its original theatrical aspect ratio, with a transfer that is pristine and practically devoid of any print damage.
If I have any complaints with this release, it's only with the lack of extras. With all the talk of an upcoming deluxe Oliver Stone box set, full of influential films rumored to be loaded with director commentary tracks and deleted scenes, this barebones Universal release just feels incomplete. As his commentary tracks on Platoon and Natural Born Killers have demonstrated, Stone is truly a great speaker and comes across as an intelligent artist eager to share informative, entertaining anecdotes and explanations of the methods to his madness. After watching Talk Radio, I found myself really craving a Stone/Bogosian audio track, or even a documentary showing the creation of this fine film all the way from its stylistic roots as a stage play.
Talk Radio is definitely a film worth seeing. If you are a fan of the work of Oliver Stone, or just like intelligent dialogue-driven films full of visual panache and great performances by actors at the top of their game, then you'll surely want to pick this DVD up and add it to the collection. If you are the type of viewer who can garner repeat viewings only from popcorn flicks where they blow stuff up real good real often, then you'll be well advised to give this gem only a rental.
Talk Radio is innocent of all charges, but Universal is found guilty of not going the distance by giving this film the full DVD treatment it richly deserves. This is only a misdemeanor offense, and Universal is merely sentenced to a non-stop marathon of constant trash talk television, watching re-runs of such broadcast soapboxers as Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo, and Dr. Laura Schlesinger consecutively for a period to be determined by this court at a later date.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Biographies