Review: ‘Left of the Dial’

Documentary filmmakers have usually struck gold when something big and unexpected happens during production, but the financial turmoil surrounding the birth of Air America, the liberal radio network, actually works to the detriment of this behind-the-scenes tick-tock chronicling its debut.

Documentary filmmakers have usually struck gold when something big and unexpected happens during production, but the financial turmoil surrounding the birth of Air America, the liberal radio network, actually works to the detriment of this behind-the-scenes tick-tock chronicling its debut. Mixing the venture’s corporate woes with its neurotic on-air personalities nearly melting down for various reasons, what ensues should be interesting but, like “progressive talk” itself, sounds better on paper than in the execution.

More than anything, Air America has demonstrated that left-wing hosts, many culled from the show-business arena, can be just as shrill and annoying as right-wing counterparts who dominate that field. Moreover, it’s not really clear what the documentary ultimately intends to communicate, since despite overcoming its rocky origins the fledgling enterprise’s ostensible reason for being — combating and unseating the Bush administration — went down in flames.

Picking up a few weeks before the network signed on (and premiering on the one-year anniversary of that date), “Left of the Dial” captures the hectic run-up to the launch. In its first half, the docu shows the exultant media attention showered on hosts Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, the insecurities of comic/morning co-host Marc Maron and the resentment of Randi Rhodes, left mostly overlooked even though she’s one of the few proven broadcasters in the bunch.

Suddenly, though, to use a technical term, things go kablooey. The network loses its L.A. and Chicago affiliates — due to what appears to be mismanagement by chairman Evan Cohen — and financing dries up, leaving employees without health benefits. Carl Ginsburg, one of the producers (and later chief operating officer), exhaustedly labels it a mess, while Cohen and investor Doug Kreeger start asking the documentarians to turn the cameras off. Conservatives giggle derisively.

If that sounds contentious, however, that’s not to say it’s particularly enlightening. Rhodes and Maron spend a lot of time whining, and everyone else just wants their paychecks not to bounce while they toil to oust Bush. In that sense, score the outcome — Air America lives, Bush wins — a split decision.

Ultimately, even the insider access granted to filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan doesn’t illuminate what actually transpired, given the long disclaimers that roll on near the finale like the “Star Wars” opening. Cohen, quite clearly, knows a lawyer or two and doesn’t want people to come away thinking he’s inept, a crook or both.

Air America has survived, establishing an alternative that proves there is indeed room for an island of liberalism in the choppy radio seas of conservative talk. So let’s concede there should be an ideologically attuned station for every viewpoint. Now what?

HBO’s “America Undercover” has yielded plenty of fascinating stories, but it wouldn’t be much of a loss if “Left of the Dial” had been left off the dial.

Left of the Dial

HBO, Thurs. March 31, 8 p.m.

Production

Produced by Sell the Horse Prods. and @Radical.Media. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; senior producer, Lisa Heller; supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; producer-directors, Patrick Farrelly, Kate O'Callaghan.

Crew

Camera, Robert Palumbo, Erica Soehngen; editors, Maeve O'Boyle, David Zieff; music, John Kimbrough. Running time: 99 MIN.
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