Al Franken: God Spoke
2006Director: Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus
Cast: Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter
efore launching into my perspective on the new documentary from the makers of The War Room, cheekily titled Al Franken: God Spoke, I find it germane to begin with a confession: I absolutely love Al Franken! I checked out his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them from the library and read it in the course of a single afternoon. I found it observant, candid, and humorous in equal measures. Hell, I would go as far as to declare Stuart Saves His Family the most entertaining of the SNL spin-offs, preferring it even to the much-revered Wayne’s World.
Unfortunately, I find that not many of my friends and acquaintances share my affection for his comic genius, both conservatives and moderate liberals alike. Perhaps they view him as the liberal version of Bill O’Reilly. I suppose this would be validated if Franken possessed the same penchant for unsubstantiated attacks on his opponents based on circumstantial evidence, but one of the charms of Franken’s humor is the amount of supporting evidence he provides against his targets. To that extent, however, if I felt obliged to supply the opposition with fodder to authenticate their hatred of Franken, God Spoke may, sadly, help fill that role.
Not that the film attempts to cast a negative light upon Franken—precisely the opposite. The solicitous fawning that the camera lavishes upon him throughout the film gives us an almost nauseating perspective. At times, the camera hovers in so close to him and at such a low angle that the viewer feels that at any moment he might topple over upon them. It’s a self-aggrandizing and meandering film that never announces a clear purpose other than celebrating Franken’s persona. It’s a shame, too, since much of what God Spoke provides could have been shaped into a much better film.
It begins with the lawsuit filed by Fox claiming that his use of the expression “Fair and Balanced” in his book was a copyright infringement. Franken’s most vicious rival, Bill O’Reilly, pushed the case aggressively and, as one would expect, the lawsuit was thrown out of court because you can’t copyright the concept “fair and balanced.” This begins the film’s examination of the bitter rivalry between Franken and O’Reilly, which, in my opinion, provides the biggest laughs. Some of the best moments occur when they simply present clips from the O’Reilly Factor depicting a befuddled O’Reilly self-destructing with rancor at news of Franken’s success. We witness a man whose hatred turns to obsession as he forces guests to agree that Franken is a vile human being. Considering the success of these moments, one wonders why the film makers didn’t decide to simply focus on this enmity, teasing out the same dynamic Michael Moore zeroed in on between himself and Roger Smith in Roger & Me.
Instead, the film attempts to cover too many of Franken’s exploits over the course of the last several years, starting with his campaign work for Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, to laying the groundwork for his liberal radio show Air America, and spanning into his campaign work for John Kerry during the 2004 election. It culminates in his decision to run for Senate in Minnesota, but this announcement doesn’t feel like a denouement so much as a superfluous addition to an already aimless film. If its purpose was merely to position Franken as a legitimate political candidate, it took the longest route possible.
Case in point: The film spins off so many disparate yarns concerning Franken’s various ventures that many don’t receive proper closure. Halfway through the film, we learn of his radio show’s struggle to retain its license. Their last check bounced, and the future looks awfully dismal. They even provide a clip in which O’Reilly gloats that the “liberal talk show” market has failed just as he predicted. It’s a devastating moment, to be sure, but it’s soon discarded as the film moves on to a different issue. I assume that Air America pulled through their dilemma since there are a few references to his continued involvement toward the end of the film, but they never explicitly settle the matter.
Dead ends like this aid in slackening the pace of the film and muddling its purpose. It ultimately treads through patchy territory, unable to arrive efficiently at its goal. Some moments are genuine, if sullen—after George Bush wins reelection, we witness Franken grudgingly holding back his tears. Other scenes provide some hilarious lowbrow humor, as when Franken gets his backpack caught in the wheel of a desk chair. But what the film needs is a synthesis of the two, a prospect it surprisingly lacks. In the end, it suffers from the same setbacks prevalent in another politically charged film released this year and helmed by an aging comedian, Albert Brooks’ Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World. I enjoyed both films, but they appeared complicit in simply existing, unwilling to chisel out of their respective subjects anything particularly profound. I still admire Franken, and wish him great success in his political future, but as far as this film is concerned, you’re better off sticking with his book.
Al Franken: God Spoke is currently playing in limited release.