The premise of Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio” is simple: Barry Champlain is a Jewish-American talk radio host in Dallas, Texas. He’s on the hard left in a radio market that leans far right.
On air, Champlain fields calls from small town folk who routinely express racist, sexist and homophobic things. He uses his big city wit and sardonic humor to shut them down, but while listeners seemingly hate him for being such an asshole, they can’t stop listening.
That he’s an asshole on the radio should come as no surprise — Champlain really is an asshole. Played by Eric Bogosian, he’s a ratings-obsessed egomaniac who sleeps with his assistant-cum-producer while tricking his ex-wife into reconciling just so he can rebuke her live on the air. The guy will stop at nothing to get ahead.
Perhaps that’s the film’s genius: callers are seen as lunatics and extremists, but so is Champlain. His boss Dan— played by Alec Baldwin — tries telling him as much (“It’s just a job,” Baldwin says), yet it doesn’t seem to sink in. On the verge of being nationally syndicated, he has what appears to be an on-air breakdown, lobbing insults at his callers hot and heavy. But the harder he hates and more ridiculous the calls, the better things get. A media executive sent to watch over him comes away impressed. Things are looking up.
Sadly, however, Champlain never makes it that far. In the end, he is felled by a crazed listener who approaches in the parking lot after the show and shoots him dead. If this seems like an all-too-real scenario, that’s because it is. Released in 1988, “Talk Radio” is based on the story of Alan Berg, a radio personality killed four years earlier by members of The Order, a white neo-Nazi outfit.
Nearly thirty years later, with an increasingly divided country, “Talk Radio” feels extremely relevant. If not because radio airwaves are still filled with all sorts of craziness, then because fringe views and cutthroat characters — the likes of which “Talk Radio” shines an unfavorable light on — are now, thanks to the internet and the explosion of new media, apt to find an even larger and far more captive audience than ever before.
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