After a series of three excellent films (Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street), Oliver Stone decided to make Talk Radio, adapted from a play written by the film’s star, Eric Bogosian. It follows Barry Champlain (Bogosian), a Jewish talk show host in Dallas, whose on-air comments and musings are controversial to say the least. The polemical nature of his show incites two things: vicious death threats (many of them antisemitic and/or racist), and an offer to broadcast his program nationwide. When his ex-wife (Ellen Greene) flies to Dallas to be present for the show’s first national broadcast, the film segues to flashbacks of the couple’s married life, and Barry’s rise to talk-show fame. Eventually, we get a finale filled with “on-air” diatribes, where Barry refuses to compromise his scathing show, even as tension and hatred begin to fill the air.
During the film’s first thirty minutes or so, I was really taken by how good it was. It starts off with a frenetic broadcast, where the viewer gets a good sense about who Barry’s character is. The scenes where he talks to talk show call-ins are fabulous, and provide much humor and energy. Bogosian fits in perfectly to the role, and had me thinking that this would be a great movie led by a great performance. Unfortunately, once the film began to spread its wings I realized how truly wrong I was. Not only is this a wasted opportunity, it’s also tonally incompetent and over-directed.
For one thing, the flashback sequences transition poorly into the film, and are unnecessary. We are shown a younger Barry, when he was happily married and breaking into the radio business. Instead of pumping development into the main character, Stone gives us overlong scenes of exposition. The viewer does not need to be shown what factored into many key points in his life (namely his divorce and success in radio). The first thirty minutes alone does a really good job setting up Barry; with more character moments, much of what happens in the flashback(s) could have been inferred, rather than shown.
I was convinced that once the excessive plot points yielded to actual scenes of broadcasting, the film would pick up again. How very naive I was to think such a thing. The final scenes are really where Stone ruins the story with inconsistent directing. Instead of reaching its potential by remaining riveting and witty, the movie attempts to become claustrophobic and suspenseful. It’s as if Stone thinks he is directing a thriller, causing the mood to feel totally out of place and alien to its subject matter. Near the end, the script takes a final twist, and tries getting into Barry’s psyche. This leads to an embarrassingly “important” monologue, followed by an equally embarrassing over-the-top ending.
If Talk Radio had stayed true to the roots of its fascinating opening, it could have been great; instead, it’s a mess. Bogosian had the capacity to give an Oscar-worthy performance, a talent which was unfortunately squandered. To be fair, he does give his all and is excellent, though falls short of his potential. Additionally, the supporting cast (with exception of Ellen Greene) is pretty good, especially Michael Wincott (the only redeeming thing in the film’s final act). There are a few shining lights in this murky swamp of a movie, though not enough to fill a silver screen.