God never spoke to Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky. But Cthulhu did.
"What I do isn't propaganda. What I do is taking what they say and using it against them. What I do is jiu-jitsu."—Al Franken
In 1960, Robert Drew directed a film called Primary, in which cameras followed a fresh-faced political candidate as he jumped through the hoops of a presidential campaign. The filmmakers were in the right place at the right time: the candidate was John F. Kennedy, and his presidency would redefine the connection between American politics and mass media. Since then, filmmakers have tried to capture lightning in a bottle again and again by trying to find exactly the right political figure whose image could speak for itself. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus followed Bill Clinton's campaign in The War Room and ended up revealing much about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a presidential campaign while uncovering nothing about the candidate himself. In retrospect, even Kennedy comes across as a cipher in Primary; we know him more through the mythologizing done by other sources (including Kennedy himself) than through the film itself. Thus, "campaign films," as we can call them, are less about a person than a process: how does a public figure play to the public, regardless of the individual underneath the media image?
At first glance, Al Franken: God Spoke should not be a "campaign film." After all, when it was made, Franken was not technically running for anything. Sure, he had published a mock campaign scenario as the backbone of his 1999 novel Why Not Me? In this fake autobiography, Franken tells the tale of his bizarre run for the presidency—and his disastrous hundred days in office when he manages to actually win. (The book is probably his most consistently solid piece of political satire.) Indeed, it was only a few months ago that Franken officially decided to have life imitate art by running for a Minnesota Senate seat.
In a way, Franken has been on the campaign trail for a long time, at least ever since he jumped ship from Saturday Night Live and became a solo act. Back in the '70s, Franken was part of that original band of coke-fueled, over-educated writers and performers that mainstreamed political satire into television sketch comedy. But by the 1990s, Franken discovered that he had a taste for more direct attacks on the hypocrisy of editorializing blowhards—particularly those on the opposite side of the ideological fence. He also developed his most devastating attack: the slippery "aw-shucks, I'm just telling it like it is" Minnesota attitude that lured his opponents into sticking their feet all the way down their own throats.
It worked most perfectly against Fox News, when they sued Franken over the title of his 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Rupert Murdoch's network took exception to Franken's parody of their "fair and balanced" slogan. After Franken and Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly had a public dust-up at a book expo, Fox lawyers jumped in and filed a strangely worded lawsuit, describing Franken as "shrill and unstable" (not exactly the most professional language for a trademark infringement case). The result: the ill-conceived case was thrown out, and Franken had managed to lure Fox into embarrassing itself and playing to his audience's baser expectations about right-wing nuttery. Brilliant.
Such stories form the meat of Al Franken: God Spoke. They play like comedy sketches, bits from the sort of show Franken's failed newsroom sitcom Lateline wanted to be. The movie even begins like a comedy sketch, with Franken reading from his book Lying Liars: God tells him to write a response to the tactics of Fox News. Then, we hear the story (in bits and pieces, including Franken telling Jay Leno) of the Fox lawsuit. Again, it is all framed as a big joke.
Directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob quickly shift to verité mode—and get serious. Franken starts talking about bogus calculations thrown around about the war in Iraq. Here comes Al Franken the crusader. We follow him back to Minnesota and hear heartwarming stories about his father. Here's Franken the man of the people.
To their advantage, Hegedus and Doob never give the sense that what Franken is doing is a put-on, the performance of a calculating politician who wants to show us a human side that he might have formulated by committee. That is the sort of thing you sometimes get from actual politicians. Rather, Franken comes across as a guy who acts based on real emotion. He gets mad and lashes out. He likes something and laughs about it. In fact, he spends a lot of time laughing at his own jokes, as if he is surprised to have an audience at all. This is Franken the nerd, the kid who tried hard to be class clown all through school but could never score enough points with the popular crowd. This Franken always seems a little surprised that he has snuck up to the bully pulpit and can lob a few shots at the powers-that-be. This is the insecure Franken, the gawky Jewish kid with the big hair, who keeps waiting for the audience to turn its back on him. This is the Franken that seems personally defeated when John Kerry loses the election.
Franken's work in print runs hot and cold. When he finds the right targets—pompous zealots whose words can be turned against them—his satirist's instincts can eviscerate with the gory abandon of Jack the Ripper. Without the right target, Franken himself becomes the pompous zealot, fumbling and stabbing himself with the knife. Fortunately, there are enough Ann Coulters and Sean Hannitys in the world to keep Franken from needing to resurrect Stuart Smalley any time soon. But his accelerating public profile may be turning him into exactly the sort of swell-headed iconoclast he is supposed to be mocking. While I will admit that I have not had the opportunity to hear his Air America show before he retired it to make his political run, I can imagine how much a large dose of uninterrupted Franken must try anybody's patience.
In turn, Al Franken: God Spoke works best when it keeps the camera at a distance, mixing moments of comedy (Franken on Saturday Night Live joking about running for president) with Franken just being himself on his book tour for Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them or getting Air America set up. The film works to humanize him, showing bits of his USO tour, where he gets out there to entertain his audience, while his talking-head critics sit in their studios insulting him. They look like bullies (only Sean Hannity acts with courtesy and civility); Franken comes across as a nice guy just trying to get his voice heard over the screaming. Of course, this could all just be clever editing.
Franken as satirist comes across more conspicuously in the deleted scenes: dressing in an exaggerated version of Bush's "mission accomplished" flight suit, doing impersonations, and chatting with Jon Stewart. This suggests that Hegedus and Doob are giving us the more serious, more politically conscious Franken. That is, the guy who might be campaigning. When Franken actually narrates or offers political commentary through his radio show bits, trying to score rhetorical hits about, say, how the right wing spun the Paul Wellstone memorial as a propaganda tool, even those who might agree with him might find him overly strident.
The candid Franken is more revealing than the potential politician. As a satirist, Al Franken works best from the fringes, where he can be subversive without falling into the trap of power and ego that his more popular and influential opponents often find themselves in. Indeed, the very title of the film (that God demanded he take charge) plays off the mock egotism that many current liberal critics of conservative-driven media—Franken, Stephen Colbert—use to impersonate and undermine their targets. That is the key difference between Franken's joking lies, done as satire, and the straight-faced lies sometimes put forth by his adversaries. Is it a pot/kettle situation?
But overall, if you swing to the extremes of either political wing, you have already made up your mind about Al Franken: God Spoke. As you watch Franken and company struggle to keep Air America financially solvent, you already know whether to gloat (like Bill O'Reilly clearly does) or seethe with frustration. When you watch Ann Coulter and Franken debate, the film shows her as standoffish and shallow and Franken as self-deprecating and warm—if you already know how to feel, you can chalk this up either to tricky editing to make her look bad, or that she really is a tool of Satan.
As a campaign film, Al Franken: God Spoke is probably the best thing to happen to Franken, if you expect his future constituents to love him for being one of the people, a funny, real person who gets very riled up when the powerful lie and deceive. But can Franken the populist take charge without becoming Franken the ideologue? I just report. You decide.
(Now I have to call my attorney and tell him to expect a lawsuit from Fox News.)
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