His courage made them champions
When you hear that something you are about to see is a "feel good" movie, what are your expectations? Do you think you are in for an uplifting saga of human struggle to overcome adversity? Or maybe you like tales of one man battling the system for the sake of others? Perhaps it's those journeys of personal enlightenment that float your boat, individuals who travel globally, or even inward, to reach a state of self-actualization. Then of course there is the more frequently used subset of this category, the "misunderstood misfit" movie. Usually a factual and/or somewhat fictionalized account of an incomplete person finding intolerance and eventual acceptance in the jaded eyes of others, these flicks announce their intentions upfront and often. Examples of this syrupy storytelling run the gamut from Bill, with Mickey Rooney as a mentally handicapped corncob being uncovered by documentarian Dennis Quaid, to Charly, with Cliff Robertson going from gimp to genius—and back again—in "be careful what you wish for" fashion. Radio ramrods itself directly into this classification, but for all the wrong reasons. It's determined to take a simple story of an intellectually deficient man and the town that ultimately embraced him and cram it full of forced hope and false charity. It knows that a modern audience, filled with pessimistic ironists who think the world is not dark enough won't cotton to a true James Brown experience awash in love and understanding. So it's up to the manipulation machinations to dig down below the cynic surface and mash on the emote buttons. Radio doesn't kill puppies or abuse infants to get its mandated meaning across, but one feels like it would if it needed to, just to guarantee a few handkerchiefs.
Facts of the Case
It's 1976, and in a small South Carolina town, football and the local high school team, the Hannah Yellow Jackets, are kings. All eyes are on Coach Harold Jones, a no-nonsense man with a talent for bringing out the best in his players. One day, as the team is preparing for the new season, Jones sees a strange, enigmatic young man walking along the side of the practice field. He is pushing a shopping cart and listening to the radio. Sometimes he stops to watch. Other times he just wanders by. After an incident with some of his team, Coach Jones befriends the man, whom he nicknames Radio because of his obvious affinity for the transistor transmitters. Eventually, Radio becomes Coach Jones' number one priority. He looks out for him and makes him a part of the football staff. As the season wears on, Radio is a sideline fixture and slowly the team, the students, and the fans grow to care for him.
But not everyone in town is happy to have a mentally handicapped man "distracting" their sports program. Big time team booster (and local bank president) Frank Clay is concerned that "Radio's" presence will hurt his son's chance at a full ride scholarship to a big university. Many of the townsfolk feel that his presence forces the coach to focus on other things rather than winning. Even Coach Jones' family is jealous, only ever so slightly, about the amount of attention he pays to Radio. But when the school board starts questioning why a person with obvious special needs is wandering around the halls of the local public high school, battle lines are drawn. Will Radio be abandoned by those who love him? Or will the power of acceptance overcome the pettiness of others?
His name was (and is) James Robert Kennedy. He was (and is) a fixture in the small Southern town of Anderson, South Carolina. Back at the beginning though, no one knew much about him. Today, he is a well-loved fixture at the local football games, cheering, coaching, and playing the crowd with expertise. "Radio" Kennedy is a real human being, with a fascinating life story full of happiness and defeat, friendship and personal flaws. But the movie made of his life in 2003, the thickheaded and lumbering Radio is all about taking sentimental potshots at the audience in hopes they will react accordingly. Radio is retardation for the culturally sensitive. It whitewashes one man's life for the sake of sudsy soft soap sermonizing and undercuts his and the human spirit of others to telegraph responses to the crowd. At the core of this cornball crock of crudity is a compelling story of small town transformation, how one man with his unique needs had previously closed-off individuals looking within themselves regarding their personal prejudices. But Radio is not interested in that so much as the usual handicapped set pieces. Throughout the course of the film, the character Radio will be tormented, tested, and ultimately triumphant. In reality, things were much more complicated and messy than that. Leave it to Hollywood to trim the truth for the sake of counterfeit sentiment and narrative noodling.
How can they do this, you ask. Isn't Radio a true story? Aren't they bound by what really happened? Well, when you finally make it through this mushy, saccharine movie and cue up the director's commentary, you will hear an interesting bit of Hollywood insider intrigue, something that tells you why Radio is so contrived. Seems that in the realm of the screenwriter/moviemaker, there are three labels one can give to a biographical/event-oriented offering. First, there is "a true story," which translates into "you better have all your facts straight or it's lawsuit time." Next, there is "based on a true story," which means you can fashion a character composite or two, fudge the flow of events a tad, and basically bolster your story with a little Tinseltown polish. Then there is the gloriously incongruent "inspired by a true story," which essentially allows you to lie like a mofo. Imagination and invention can run rampant over reality for the sake of that wonderful bit of wordplay, "dramatic license." So would it surprise you that the inspirational story of a mentally challenged man, befriended by a high school football coach and embraced by an entire city would fall under the "inspired by" marquee? Seems the story itself would be strong enough to avoid the formulaic fashioning that goes on here. But no, Radio is not interested in the facts as much as it is interested in how it can present them melodramatically. They picked a difficult topic to depict, and when it suddenly befuddles them, they bail out on the more complicated controversies to stay slick and surface, only occasionally allowing the hollow heart beating beneath to shine through.
Now no one really expects a puff piece like Radio to stand up and be recognized for the story it is scuttling. All one has to do is mention the circumstance involved—African-American man-child of limited mental capacity, a strict white football coach in an insular, sports-obsessed Dixie community, a class of less than tolerant students—and the warning signs of significance and controversy start flashing. But we humans have become a funny lot lately. We are just not capable of accepting that, back across the decades, we were less than liberal, prone to prejudice, and capable of all manner of hate crimes towards minorities. The real Radio's story started in the mid-60s, amid perhaps the most racially tumultuous times since the Civil War. Yet that is not part of what is being addressed here. We move the movie narrative up to 1976, when integration was a cautious given and disco was more important than diversity. According to all accounts, it took Coach Harold Jones about five years of constant trying to get Radio to even attempt communication. Yet all Ed Harris has to do is flash those Oscar nominated pearly whites in his Radio's direction and real statuette holder Cuba Gooding, Jr. melts like warm Oleo. But the most manipulative moments are carved out of created circumstances, scenes, and sequences that never happened in real life but are inserted here to create a kind of experience pastiche, a quilt of old fashioned hokum bound together by recognizable reactionary circumstances. The real Radio may have experienced prejudice and heartache and torment, but his cinematic twin will only show you the showcase versions of same, all watered down to avoid confronting anyone.
So it's simple to pile on and punish Radio for what it does to this genuinely interesting life story. There is no need to make up barbershop "press conferences" for the coach so that hidden agendas are unearthed. It is not necessary to create stage father villains to avoid the "n" or "r" word. Radio's mother doesn't have to pass into shadow (about two decades too soon) so we can understand, through a time-honored theatrical tantrum of course, that he loved her with all his heart. And there is no purpose to a rain-drenched pantomime of a football game in helping us understand how "connected" Radio felt to the team (he is left behind to play in the thunderstorm because of administrative concerns about having him travel to an away game on a bus full of students). But no, Radio lets its star, Cuba Gooding Jr., run around in the downpour, tugging like taffy at our heartstrings, hoping we see the joy and jocularity the pigskin brings him. This is all part of the plan, the strong yet subtle Hollywood dogma of how to present this material without naming names. Director Michael Tollin and screenwriter Mike Rich avoid the adversarial by constantly tossing in possible penance for crimes that no one is really committing. Notice how when Radio is assaulted or teased, it is always by a racially mixed group (white and black). If the punishing posse had been solely white, PC alarms would have gone off. Since Radio wants nothing to do with race (which may or may not be commendable), the diverse demon-ography makes the perfect civil rights ruse. And no one dares call Radio special, or gifted, or handicapped. They don't call him a mongoloid, an idjit, a retard, or a spaz either. When forced to provide a label, we get Radio's mother saying that the doctors called him "slow." How perfectly pedestrian. Forrest Gump is a dipshit, but the near inarticulate Radio is merely grinding down his mental gears.
For all its superficial ass covering, Radio still could have been a good film. It could have relied on the truth of its story, the time and temperament the real individuals placed in trying to understand and help Radio. We could have gotten lost in a true slice of sublime human harmony complete with compelling three-dimensional characters. But the filmmakers have no faith in the American people (unless they are filling out preview cards, that is) and they think that everything has to be spoon fed, over-explained, and ultra-analyzed to connect with the popcorn crowd. About the only thing Radio has going for it is acting, and even that has a few husks in it. In essence, the film is performance as acting throwdown, a drawn battle line between the chewing of scenery and the intricacy of craft. Ed Harris is excellent here, taking on the total jock sports persona brilliantly. Matched with the much missed and very effective Debra Winger, they give a quiet dignity to what are occasionally seen as stereotypes (i.e., the maverick football coach and his long suffering "widow"). The rest of the mostly unknown cast also handle their characterizations with skill and sharpness. Oscar owner Cuba "Show Me the Money…Or at Least the Script" Gooding Jr. is, on the other hand, here to eradicate everything Harris and the rest do. He turns Radio into a walking factory of facial tics and private universe musings. Digging deep into the well of showoff stunts, age-old antics, and make-up madness, he is all fake teeth and bad wardrobe. You never sense he is playing a human being afflicted with mental dysfunction. What he is doing is giving us a list of the dilemmas of the everyday dork, all flash and pandering, but very little soul. Gooding's Radio is an idea surrounded by three-dimensional individuals. Not a good place for your cinematic namesake to be in.
By reducing Radio's epic story to a single year shuffle, by making him more childlike than challenged, and turning a blind biased eye to issues that must have been part of his march toward acceptance, the movie of this man's life is mostly a farce. It's not so much a drama as a series of scenic formula flowers with a moviemaking hummingbird coasting over the primitive pistons of storytelling to pick out the sweetest, sappiest pollen. There is no depth, no detail or definition. Radio as a character is like Radio the movie: completely white washed for the sake of Cine-complexity. At the end, when the real Radio hits the screen, eyes alive with unbridled joy and personality aflame with inner light, we see what this entire endeavor could have been. We see the award-winning documentary, the Emmy compelling segment of HBO's Real Sports, the tell-all TV biopic, or the big budget, properly done Hollywood extravaganza. Radio's story of courage and camaraderie should make you feel good, not glum. It should turn your frown upside down and warm the ever-lovin' cockles of your heart. But all we get here are pretty pictures diluted of all their drama and relevance. Radio, the person, could be considered an inspiration. The movie of his life is just irritating.
One has to wonder if Columbia TriStar is attempting to make up for the movie's failings by giving the DVD of Radio a real special edition sheen. The audio and video are exceptional and there are enough bonus trappings to quell even the most extra anxious entity. Beginning with the look, Radio is radiant in a 1.85:1 anamorphic image that is occasionally more moving than the narrative. The sunsets and scenic vistas of rural South Carolina are rendered Eden-like with sharpness and incredible depth. Even during the indoor scenes, Radio still has warmth and clarity. Just like the soundtrack. Although James Horner is along to make every emotional moment in the savant's life seem like the sinking of a certain ship, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is lush and lively. There is great atmosphere and channel challenge to this aural offering, especially during the sports segments. Dialogue is always understandable and the little touches (Radio's radio echoing off in the background or distance) really open up the movie's cinematic canvas.
As for the extras, we begin with the aforementioned commentary by director Michael Tollin. Oddly enough, he is often far more entertaining than his movie. He is a good storyteller, has lots of production anecdotes about this project and fills in historical gaps when necessary. As such, he functions less like a commentator and more like a challenger to the events in the film. He also gives us the infamous "three phases of true story" insight that, personally, undercuts the entire film. The minute you know he willingly went for "inspired," you understand why the movie doesn't work. Still, Tollin is talkative and beginning to end interesting and leaves you with a far more favorable impression of the film than what you actually witnessed without discussion. This also happens when we get to the three featurettes on the disc. Each offers a different perspective on the process of making the movie. The best is Tuning in on Radio, since it deals almost exclusively with the real story behind the film and talks with all of the major players involved. Writing Radio is an excuse-fest, a chance for the script scribe to explain why events were modified, people compromised, and history perverted for the sake of getting to the quintessence of this mentally challenged man. The final behind-the-scenes glimpse is of sports consultant Mark Ellis and his incredibly gung ho attitude about getting the athleticism in the film (read: the football and basketball scenes) 100% correct. This man makes gutter-mouthed drill sergeants seem like sissies, not because of his command of the four-letter word (he actually never utters one) but because of his laser-like dictatorial focus. He does not tolerate the tired and has little room for any other ego but his own. He is very good at what he does: the sports scenes in the film are just fine. And he is an interesting character himself.
The rest of the special features include a series of deleted scenes, some of which would have definitely helped the film. Tollin comments (on the optional track) that many were taken out because he felt he had already gotten his point across elsewhere in the film and the additional sequences would have been redundant. This is really not the case. Tollin is, unfortunately, so wrapped up in the film that he forgets the difference between what he knows and what the audience does. For many, this is our first exposure to Radio. We know very little about him and a two-hour movie can't fill in all the blanks. These scenes would have definitely helped our understanding. So it's also too bad they are presented in such a horrible, vertical-line spoiled, nth generation transfer. Seamless branching could have made Radio a better movie, if only a little. Add in a few trailers (some of which have to be skipped through at the beginning) and some DVD-ROM content (unavailable to this critic) and Radio the DVD has more digital than cinematic substance. But that's no big surprise. After all, the DVD adds content and context that the movie could care less about.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its faults, its failure to illuminate and illustrate the life of one truly unique individual, Radio is really pretty good. It takes its time, never forces the issue and lets events unfold naturally and calmly. Sure, Cuba Gooding Jr. could be less mannered, following Harris' and Winger's leads in how to underplay a role. But this is a typical star turn, no worse than others that have gained Oscar nominations and awards for spazzing out. Forgiving the fraudulent fictions adhered to this film and simply enjoying what is presented will definitely provide that so called "feel good" experience. When Coach Jones finally connects with Radio, when he counsels him in grief or stands up for him in pride, there is a really nice human story at work. Too bad so many of us can't see it. Maybe it's our cynical mindset that won't allow us to get lost inside such a sweet story. Maybe the lack of complete factual accuracy does canonize someone who is more average than angel. But no one should champion this movie not being made. Radio deserves to have his life and love celebrated on the big screen just as much as a schizophrenic math genius or a toxic, troubled porn star. This may not be the best version of Radio's radiant life, but it's still a decent attempt
Perhaps it is impossible, in this day and age, to capture an audience's imagination and get them to celebrate the "feel good." In these days of cyclical hero worship/deconstruction, media ultra-irony and self-centered interpersonal containment, we just can't make the necessary connections to another human life to experience uplift or rapture. Someone who makes good is torn down for being better off than we, and when folks rally around and support a special person, we sneer with a jealousy born out of knowledge that we have no such group of caregivers surrounding us. Radio's real story is interesting and inspirational, if only because it shows us that we should never assume or assign our fellow man a place on the social food chain before we know what makes him tick. Radio the movie, on the other hand, is just a series of passionate crib sheets, cheats by the filmmakers to have us feel happy and sad, angry and victorious. It doesn't compel us to feel good since it doesn't really feel good enough about its subject to expose the whole truth. And when those trying to get us to cry only manage to twist a tear of temerity out of us, they definitely flipped the wrong switches. If you don't mind your movies filled with false pretensions and manufactured passions, then by all means, load up the DVD player, get a slice or two of credulous cobbler, and sit down for the feast of foolishness known as Radio. It will tell you the story of two men and the mental deficiency that bound them. It will show you a Southern town that never once winked at a handicapped black man interacting with them and their families. There is more to this story. But this Radio is tuned to "inspirational" easy listening…and that's all we get.
Radio is found guilty of pandering to the lowest common denominator and is banished to the Island of Manipulative Misfit Movies for a sentence of no less than 30 years. Columbia TriStar is chastised for making this malarkey in the first place, but praised for the excellent DVD work and package. Their sentence is suspended.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Michael Tollin
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