Documakers Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus cast an admiring eye on a liberal gadfly in “Al Franken: God Spoke,” a cinema-verite portrait that proves more celebratory than revelatory. Smoothly paced, well-crafted pic should greatly please auds attuned to Franken’s prickly wit and iconoclastic commentary and might even engage some right-leaning nonfans who grudgingly respect his smartly satirical sass. If it manages to tap into the same undercurrents of discontent and frustration that fueled the breakthrough success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” doc could post surprisingly impressive theatrical numbers. But even if “God Spoke” speaks only to the converted, that may be enough to generate brisk B.O. and homevid biz.
Pic follows Franken through more than a year of seemingly nonstop activity. He begins by savoring a sweet victory against Fox News, which had filed an ill-advised lawsuit against him for daring to use the phrase “fair and balanced” in the subtitle of his book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” The lawsuit (reportedly urged by Fox News superstar Bill O’Reilly, the frequent target of Franken’s mockery) was summarily dismissed by an openly derisive judge. Better still – for Franken, at least – the resulting publicity pushed “Lies” to the top of the bestseller charts.
During the next several months, Franken divides his time among publicity tours for his book, public debates with political foes – his confrontation with the famously blond Ann Coulter is hilariously nasty – and early spadework for the startup of Air America, a liberal talkradio network that gets off to a very bumpy start. Doob and Hegedus maintain a sharp focus on their subject throughout his marathon of multitasking and follow him down the campaign trail as he stumps for John Kerry – or, more accurately, against George W. Bush – during the 2004 presidential campaign. When Franken brings his Air America show to the Republican National Convention, pic briefly recalls “The War Room,” the Oscar-nominated 1993 doc that Doob shot and Hegedus co-directed (with executive producer D.A. Pennebaker). Before large audiences and in small groups, Franken speaks much like he writes, with equal measures of barbed irreverence, snarky ridicule and, occasionally, passionate outrage. (Describing Air America to potential advisers, he rails against right-wing talkradio’s “simplistic black-and-white babble about the way the world works.”) With more mischievousness than modesty, he insists that, while dealing with the likes of Coulter and O’Reilly, he isn’t really a satirist at all. Rather, he claims, “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. That’s my job.”
Franken’s apparently very good at that job, judging from the frequent clips of O’Reilly’s apoplectic on-air comments about his bete noire. Not surprisingly, pic frames Franken as the clear-cut victor in every duel of wits with outmatched opponents (including Sean Hannity and Michael Medved). In stark contrast, he appears amusingly amateurish during his on-the-job training prior to Air America’s debut.
Periodically, filmmakers flash back to Franken’s salad days as a “Saturday Night Live” regular during the 1970s. But the funniest “SNL” clip on view here comes from a more recent episode: the instant-classic 2002 segment in which host Al Gore (looser and livelier than he ever seemed during the 2000 election) is comforted by feel-good guru Stuart Smalley (surprise guest Franken).
Despite these flashbacks, however, “God Spoke” never really delves into the reasons and/or motivations behind Franken’s transformation from monologist and sketch-comedy performer to political pundit and liberal activist. Indeed, even during intimate moments, Franken rarely comes across as someone given to explaining himself. And except for a few fleeting comments about his late father and his loving wife, he seems most emotionally engaged when preparing or delivering a satirical thrust at someone. On the eve of Election Day 2004, he sounds positively gleeful as he wonders aloud if he can get away with excessive gloating when, not if, Kerry wins the presidency.
(After that setup, by the way, it feels somehow unfair, or at least unsatisfying, that filmmakers fail to show aud how a forlorn Franken made it through his radio program on the morning after.)
Franken seems self-reflective only in the final scenes, as he contemplates reinventing himself once again – this time, as a serious candidate for public office. Trouble is, he admits, he might have to temper the tone of his humor (and avoid anything potentially offensive) if he wants to reach voters. And that, pic suggests, may be a price he’ll be unwilling to pay.