Here’s a movie you can form an opinion on based on the title alone: “Al Franken: God Spoke.” Love Al Franken and his left-wing political views? This is for you! Prefer right-wing commentators? Skip it! Hooray! My work is done here.
Directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (who worked together on the excellent “Startup.com” and the 1993 Clinton election doc “The War Room”), “Al Franken: God Spoke” is a rather unfocused documentary about the former “Saturday Night Live” writer’s efforts to launch Air America Radio, to campaign for John Kerry in the 2004 election, and to memorialize Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone after the latter’s death in 2002.
If that sounds like a lot for one documentary to cover, it is. It’s not a biography of Franken, nor does it have a central story that it seeks to tell. Instead, it’s simply a video diary, a two-years-in-the-life fly-on-the-wall account of Franken’s public deeds.
That scope ought to be narrowed, but the film is still pretty entertaining in places, owing to Franken’s intelligence (sorry, conservatives, there’s no disputing he’s a smart guy) and quick wit. He used to be a comedy writer and performer, after all. Becoming an activist or pundit tends to make people less funny — see also Rosie O’Donnell — but Franken can still fire off a disarming one-liner better than most people can. When a moderator asks him and Ann Coulter which historical figure they would be, Coulter says she’d be Franklin Roosevelt so she could prevent the New Deal. Franken replies that he’d be Hitler so he could prevent, you know, THE HOLOCAUST. Take THAT, Stick Legs! [NOTE: I saw the film at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Prior to its official theatrical release, Coulter refused to give permission for this scene to be included, and apparently there were legal reasons why her permission was required. So take my word for it, it was a funny scene, and Ann Coulter is a shrill, hateful harpie.]
The film captures Franken’s run-ins with several foes, including Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly, as well as some hobnobbing with Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. Franken comes across as passionate, certainly, often infuriated by what he views as hypocrisy and dishonesty, but we never really get attached to him as a person. His disappointment over the outcome of the 2004 presidential election is made clear in the doc’s footage, but it’s not like we had a huge amount of emotion invested in him. Besides, we knew before the movie began that he had backed the losing horse.
A major part of being a satirist is recognizing mankind’s foibles and absurdities, and that skill also makes for a good political analyst. Franken has it up to a point, but he still suffers from the same tunnel vision that afflicts most people in his profession: the belief that the things they accuse the other side of never apply to them, too.
The OTHER guys lie and distort facts. The OTHER side engages in name-calling and muckraking. Even if they admit that they do it, too, it’s always couched in terms like, “OK, both sides distort the facts sometimes. But THEY do it way more than we do!!” (Or: “But THEY started it!”) Is it any wonder people like me are irritated by the whole thing and avoid talk radio altogether?
B- (1 hr., 39 min.; )