Al Franken would seem to be a natural subject for the patented D.A. Pennebaker cinéma vérité style. Ever since 1967, when Pennebaker profiled a repellent Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back,” he has trained his merciless gaze on a range of characters who epitomize the American obsession with wealth, celebrity and/or political ambition. He is the executive producer of “Al Franken: God Spoke,” a soon-to-be-released documentary that covers the period during which the comedian goes on a book tour for “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”, launches his Air America radio show and announces his intention to run for the US Senate from the state of Minnesota.
The film is co-directed by Pennebaker’s frequent collaborators Chris Hegedus (his wife) and Nick Doob. Although it is safe to assume that all three were sympathetic to Franken, there is something just a bit unsettling about the portrait they draw. This is of course testimony to their artistic integrity.
The film consists roughly of three overlapping episodes in Franken’s career, as mentioned above. He is most appealing on his book tour as he engages with college students around the country. Indeed, he has the style of a professor notwithstanding the occasional expletive directed at Bill O’Reilly (do professors curse in class nowadays?). In one especially engaging scene, he has a student go to the blackboard and debunk Fox-TV’s Brit Hume’s comparison between Iraq and California made on August 26, 2003:
“Two hundred seventy-seven U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq, which means that statistically speaking U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size.”
Of course, such a comparison can only be made if you omit the fact that there are 34 million people in California and 147,000 GI’s in Iraq. In other words, it is a lie. Watching Franken’s scowl as he rakes Hume over the coals is practically worth the price of admission.
The film reviews Franken’s career from his days at Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s when the show had the courage to take on the political establishment. Like many comedians, he got his sense of humor from a parent, in this case his father.
Al Franken’s parents were transplanted NY Jews. After his father was hospitalized in intensive care in a near coma, Franken went out for a visit. The nurse struck up a conversation with the comedian, mentioning at one point that “you folks are not from around here,” a type of comment I used to hear up in Boston that I always regarded as veiled anti-Semitism. When Franken mentioned that his father had lived in Twin Cities for over three decades, the nurse replied that he didn’t have a Minnesota accent. At that point, his gravely ill father summoned the strength to say, “Not yet.”
The documentary next takes up Franken’s stint at Air America, a radio station funded by wealthy liberals that is intended to counteract rightwing radio. We see Franken and his staff celebrating after they get the news that their ratings are better than Rush Limbaugh’s, whose show airs at the same time as Franken’s. However, despite listener approval, the network did not achieve the same kind of commercial success as the rightwing competition. We see Franken looking glum over news that the Chicago and Los Angeles outlets were forced off the air. Perhaps Air America’s difficulties have something to do with the fact that bashing the Republican Party is not exactly pushing the envelope nowadays. A radio listener can tune into Don Imus any weekday morning and hear people like Frank Rich or Imus himself stick it to Bush. If one objects that Air America’s approach is more progressive than Don Imus’s, then I’d have to recommend listening to the station more frequently as much of it consists of the same sort of low level insult found on rightwing stations, but with different targets. It can be fun, but it grows tedious after a while.
Indeed, as the final third of the film, which is devoted to Franken’s growing political ambitions, unwinds, some audience members might begin to become weary of him. At the press screening, I noticed a distinct fall-off in yuks as the film staggered to its conclusion. No scene illustrates this better than Franken’s sit-down with Jimmy Carter’s Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election. If one looks to Mondale for advice on running a successful campaign, no wonder the Democratic Party is in such a deep crisis.
Leaving aside the problematic aspects of Al Franken’s latest project, the film succeeds on its own terms. As with the case of any big-time celebrity, from Franken to Bob Dylan, there is nothing like the unblinking eye of the cinéma vérité camera to help one maintain at least a clinical interest.