Al Franken: God Spoke (2006)

We rarely get political on this site, hence the absence of Michael Moore’s and Al Gore’s controversial documentaries, or any documentaries for that matter. However, when a well-known comedian jumps into book publishing, then talk radio, and even politics – all with great success, it must be noted. Al Franken, one of few truly creative minds that came out of Saturday Night Live ensemble is here with a documentary movie. “God Spoke” – the fun starts right there, with the title. For those not familiar with the man, and his political work over the past few years – pick up his books. The documentary is a natural extension of the books – it is a gentle introduction to how a one-line writer got involved in press headlines, in local politics, and eventually in Washington shenanigans – while still remaining a comedian and entertainer at heart. For those who have read Al’s bestselling “Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”, and recently, “The Truth in Jokes” – some of scenes in this movie will be familiar. Juxstaposed with news reels, and with Al’s early SNL work – this film is a story of a personal journey, in a way – a man’s ongoing battle for truth.

Franken was a regular cast member on SNL between 1975 and 1980. He had about a handful of visits back to the show since then, most recently in December 2002. He played Stuart Smalley, coaching Al Gore through his depression, weight gain and denial caused by the 2000 elections. If you’re familiar with that sketch, it’s a killer when the “patient” is a failed president-wannabee. By the way, that segment, courtesy of NBC, is included in the documentary, and it’s one of many marvelous comments on how little (or how much) has changed since the 70s, and, of course, since the last American election. In a short period, a Vice President can become a celebrity (personal side note, I thought Gore’s hosting of SNL was their best show in years), and a comedian can become a savvy political candidate. I even suspect the movie is trying to point out Al Franken’s upcoming political ambitions – without actually announcing anything solid. It’s easy to speculate that this documentary could be his timely bid for a senator race in November, but it’s also a bit cynical to see nothing more to it. See, I’m getting political, and I shouldn’t.

Back to Franken’s brief bio. He’s resurfaced in 2003, when his book “Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” has infuriated Fox News so much that they took him to court. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was thrown out, and with it a possibility to expose even further how the media gets away with slanted, unfocused, filtered news, and how the people just gobble it up. At the time, Franken has defended his book, and his whole approach to this comedy/politics hybrid like this: ‘I take what they say and use it against them. What I do is jujitsu. They say something ridiculous and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. Tha’s my job.’ He’s been doing this job ever since, and the movie shows just how much he’s evolved. As an aspiring politician, journalist and an entertainer. Not a bitter entertainer, like Bill Maher or Dennis Miller, but one who just wants to be told the truth, no matter what the cost.

We get interviews with Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter (more of an angry encounter than an interview), Henry Kissinger, Robert Kennedy, Michael Moore, Karen Hughes and many more. Some segments go well, and illuminate Franken’s passion for truth, in media and in politics. Others, for instance his unusually friendly (and ultimately empty) chat with Hannity, only emphasize how far a person would go to avoid answering a simple, direct question. When you have no talking points, and no data to back up your argument, you’re lost. But when you keep arguing still, as cameras roll, that’s a sad sight. With some segments, I was surprised the filmmakers were allowed to make the footage, let alone keep it. Doesn’t anyone pay attention to the cameras anymore? It wasn’t the brave questions that surprised me (Franken’s signature is direct, simple questions like “where did that number come from”), it was the stubbornly vague replies, while being surrounded by other members of the media, by onlookers. How can people do that in public? “God Spoke” is one of those documentaries that make you wanna watch more docs – it’s has an honest point and shoot approach. No editing, no badgering, just a Q&A with someone who may have to restate earlier phrases. It gives you an impression that politicians don’t always control what they’re saying, and if you happen to ask the right question, all you need to do is step back and watch the body language. Somewhere, somebody’s pants will be on fire. Franken shows that again and again.

The film also follows Franken’s preparation for and early challenges of his radio show at Air America Radio. We get to know his interns, assistants, the whole crew that puts on the show. This is no one-man play – everyone gets a chance to pitch in and participate. We get to spend time with Franken’s family, and follow his comedy roots. Franken shares his daily frustrations with his wife and parents, and gets inspired by their support. They do disagree on things, but trust each other and that’s enough. Ultimately, the movie builds up to 2004 elections – with incredible effect. We see how the day starts for “team Franken”; how they progress from early exit polls to evening news; and how they go to work the next morning – hosting an alleged left-wing propaganda show, facing the reality. It’s a devastating coverage, with the cameras capturing, almost invading, Franken and his family in most personal, vulnerable states. They have worked so hard…

“God Spoke” is an unusual mix of sharp political satire, and honest, dedicated journalism. Just when his target is about to get mean, Franken blurts out a joke; or, in the middle of a funny monologue he spits out an alarming statistic, or a huge correction. Franken meticulously tracks down faulty statements, and tries to pin down the pundits who misrepresent, or mis-read them to millions of people from TV screens night after night. The fact that most of these pundits happen to work for Fox News is probably just a coincidence… There is a hilarious sequence in the movie when Franken crashes a Republican fundraising party. The way people behave around him is funny and sad at the same time – they are scared to be seen with him. Again, the cameras just roll without commentary – but the message is clear – there is a huge divide in American politics, and just by asking questions, you begin to bridge that gap. Franken may be asking uncomfortable questions, and from people who are uncomfortable around cameras, but it’s a brave effort on his part – to at least try to understand why everything’s divided into “us” and “them”, into liberals and conservatives, into right and wrong. You can’t be wrong just by disagreeing, and you can’t be “either with us or against us”.

Perhaps by watching this documentary, a few of these questions will be answered. Highly recommended – no matter if you’re red or blue, or even if you ever voted. Above all political messages, the movie is a very personal, and solid documentary. Watch this film – Franken has been marginalized for his books, and I suspect this movie will be difficult to find. You should make an effort to catch it. This review is probably biased (I did my best), but so is the movie. The question is: would you avoid seeing it simply because you have different political views? I don’t think so.

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