Al Franken: The movie

I have written a lot about Al Franken on Power Line over the years. I posted this review of the Doob/Hegedus documentary on Al Franken in September 2006. The movie was a complete and utter commercial bomb (domestic gross: $102,990). Just about no one saw it. As Franken rides out the scandal deriving from recent disclosures of his past behavior, I thought back to the film. A.O. Scott reviewed it for the New York Times. Stanley Kaufmann reviewed it for the New Republic, writing: “This film by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus forces us to make some decisions about him. For myself, I find him generally gross, in person and in manner.” I thought some readers might find this of interest, however slight, in the context of the recent disclosures. Before the Scott and Kaufmann reviews appeared, this is what I wrote (slightly edited):

Last week I received a DVD screener of Al Franken: God Spoke on the condition that I post a review on our site between September 6 and September 13. The film is scheduled to open in theaters on September 13.

I watched the film over the weekend and again last night. It’s hard for me to believe how bad it is. Directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, the makers of The War Room, their new film might more aptly have been titled The Bore Room. Although Franken made his name as a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live, the film provides additional evidence to support my view that Franken hasn’t been funny since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990.

I have been a fan of Franken for a long time. In June 2005 I was given a press pass to attend the Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis where Franken was the featured speaker. The fundraiser was held on the west bank campus of the University of Minnesota within shouting distance of where I had first seen Franken perform with his former comedy partner, Tom Davis. The film shows Franken in 1977 performing the same skit on Saturday Night Live with his parents that I saw Franken try out in Minneapolis in the summer of 1976 at the Dudley Riggs Workshop.

What kind of a documentary is God Spoke? It feels like a 90-minute vanity production cum campaign video, geared to promote Franken’s apparent candidacy for the Senate seat currently held by Norm Coleman. In that respect, however, the film closes on an extremely sour note. Franken is at the wheel of his car driving from the airport in Minneapolis and musing on some advice given to him by Minneapolis attorney Tom Borman. In an early scene in the film, Franken is seen telling his favorite joke (from Buddy Hackett) before a Minneapolis audience. The final scene shows Franken reflecting on Borman’s statement that his parents (wisely) thought Franken should stop telling that joke at political appearances. Franken is incredulous and unhappy about the advice.

Whereas The War Room portrayed the inside of a successful presidential campaign, God Spoke appears to be a study in failure, though no one knows it. The film opens with Franken promoting Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them before an appreciative audience. Thereafter it’s mostly downhill with Air America. God Spoke portrays Franken’s involvement with the debut of the liberal radio network, Franken’s coverage of the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions in 2004, Franken’s campaigning for John Kerry, Franken’s disappointment on election day, Franken’s announcement that he’s thinking about running against Norm Coleman and Franken’s related move from New York back to Minneapolis.

At what appears to be an Air America planning session for a meeting with investors, Franken is asked what Air America is to be. “It’s about answering the fuckheads,” Franken says. On his first Air America show in March 2004, Michael Moore is Franken’s in-studio guest; together Franken and Moore interview Al Gore by telephone. The film shows Franken exulting that his ratings for the first month of the show beat those of Rush Limbaugh in New York.

The network’s financial difficulties are intimated by reference to a missed payroll, but the abject failure of the network’s lineup to generate an audience remains a deep secret of the film. The film portrays Franken hinting darkly of network difficulties deriving from the “active intimidation” of advertisers and leaves it at that. “Less is more” seems to be the spirit with which Doob and Hegedus approach the story of Air America’s difficulties and disappointments.

The film includes a kind of “Man from Hope” element, showing Franken returning to the house he grew up in for a look around and reminiscing about his father. It also shows him on one of his USO tours impersonating Saddam Hussein to entertain the troops in Iraq. It is an unfunny sequence that appears to have been edited to show the troops laughing uproariously over Franken’s routine.

Doob and Hegedus work hard to portray Franken in a flattering light, but ninety minutes with Franken is about eighty minutes too many. Franken does not wear well; he comes across as a boor and a profoundly ugly man. Doob and Hegedus have blundered into the truth, though I can’t for the life of me imagine why they think an audience would want to pay to see it.

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