Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 29, 2006

Al Franken: God Spoke

Filed under: Film,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

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.


  1. Well written piece. I’m assuming the film is on DVD? Franken — especially as a writer — is brilliant.

    -Steve (lazycomic.blogspot.com)

    Comment by Steve — August 29, 2006 @ 7:06 pm

  2. I saw a press screening. The film opens September 13th in NYC at the IFC Theater and nationally on September 29th. I have trouble recommending the NYC showing since IFC fired their union projectionists. I am not sure what the status is right now. There used to be a picket line.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2006 @ 7:10 pm

  3. I find Franken completely overrated. He is good at taking apart some obvious and grotesque reactionaries, but ultimately he is very right-wing himself, and I can’t actually find him very funny. Air America radio is stuffed with DNC apologists, and has been extremely purblind about the occupation of Iraq. Franken himself is a pro-war schmuck who supported the war until he realised it was a ‘mistake’, and now supports the occupation. When that’s over, he’ll realise it was a ‘mistake’ too. He’s a hack. It would be satisfying if a documentary film-maker caught him drowning in his own tepid bile.

    Comment by lenin — August 29, 2006 @ 8:39 pm

  4. I agree with Lenin. The only really funny thing Franken ever does is quote from O’Reilly’s erotic novel, but that really is worth it.

    On another note…are there any decent Marxists at Columbia (professors or students)? I’m trudging through the mendacity of orientation. I went to a small elitist high school where we were charged with moral leadership for future generations–you know, you are the Platonic guardians, so develop a sense of social responsibility, etc. I used to hate it, but now I think I miss it a little. Here the attitude is more like: you’re going to be rich no matter what, so why not rock the boat a little and take an exotic language *just because it’s interesting*? (PS you got into an Ivy!!!). What’s your experience with the undergrad studet body been like? Admittedly I’ve been here a day, but so far, no radicals.

    Comment by Poulod — August 29, 2006 @ 11:25 pm

  5. Poulod, I’d look up the ISO. They have a large chapter at Columbia and can orient you to the political scene. Just don’t join!

    Comment by louisproyect — August 29, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

  6. Actually that was exactly my plan…though I was accosted by an actually polite and decent Spart today. Weird experience. But yeah, I’ll meet up with them. I was wondering if you personally had any contact with good radical faculty, but it seems like you keep aloof from all that, which is probably a good thing. Anyway, I look forward to meeting you once I’m settled in.

    Comment by Poulod — August 30, 2006 @ 4:18 am

  7. I find the fealty to one faction of the business class shown by AAR nauseating, as well as the ‘moderate’ reactionary positions that Franken adopts on his program.

    Stick with the internets and other print media.

    Comment by Eric — August 30, 2006 @ 6:41 pm

  8. Minor quibble, Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back documents Dylan’s tour of the UK in April/May, 1965. Was 1967 the year the film was released? I saw one of the concerts, but only saw the film much, much later.


    Comment by jem — September 3, 2006 @ 11:40 am

  9. Yes, 1967 was the year that “Don’t Look Back” was released, according to IMDB.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 3, 2006 @ 1:51 pm

  10. […] Lately I’ve been getting nearly a thousand hits a day because the ad for the Al Franken documentary links to my review. This ad is on all the high-profile liberal websites, plus the rightwinger Hugh Hewitt’s for some reason. Here’s today’s stats so far for the 10 top-ranking “linked from” list: […]

    Pingback by The dubious distinction of high-traffic « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 28, 2006 @ 7:49 pm

  11. Odd to hear a marxist agree with Capitalist swine like myself. Of course, regardless of how distorted your worldview is, bad is still bad.

    Franken is really just a viscious fellow in many ways, that’s really all there is to it. Interesting that you would refer to him as rightwing– as a serious one myself, I can tell you he has no rightwing cred of any kind anywhere.

    To his credit, he did have a few bright moments. I’ll probably see this thing 10 years from now, when I’m long married and grabbing random cultural blips off of Netflix (or whatever company is doing the rental biz at that time.)

    We might be diametric opposites, but cheers to a well written review, Mr. Marxist. Ciao!

    Comment by RiverCocytus — October 1, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

  12. Your mischaracterization is amusing:

    “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.

    No. Hume’s mistake is not a lie. It’s an error. This is the difference between people who argue about what “is” means and people who concern themselves with truth. For example, visit


    Comment by M Patterson — October 10, 2006 @ 10:36 pm

  13. Download it here:

    Comment by Al Franken: God Spoke — March 17, 2008 @ 8:04 am

  14. […] network whose tepid centrist politics could not be made more palatable by the occasional witticism. My review of a documentary about Al Franken made in 2006 seems […]

    Pingback by Air America: gone and already forgotten « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 23, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

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