Let’s be Franken
Al Franken: God Spoke
Directors Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus and executive producer D.A. Pennebaker (Hegedus’ husband) have collaborated before on other documentaries, adopting a fly-on-the-wall style without interviews or narration that dates back to Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back in 1967, when the approach was something of an innovation.
Pennebaker’s style has matured, even hardened, into a standardized methodology, shooting miles and miles of footage—or rather, terabytes of digital video images—all on faith, expecting the movie’s finished form to emerge during the editing process.
This is a gamble because it puts the filmmakers and their movie at the mercy of their subject. It paid off in spades for Pennebaker in ’67, when Dylan was a new face and something of an enigma. It paid off, too, in Pennebaker and Hegedus’ The War Room, about the Clinton campaign of 1992 (Doob was their cinematographer); likewise for 1997’s Moon Over Broadway, though the audience for that one was more specialized (aficionados of backstage Broadway). Then again, Startup.com (2001) was about a bunch of charisma-challenged computer techies rising and falling with the 1990s dot-com bubble, and the movie was something of a shapeless bore, like watching your dweeb neighbor’s home movies of his vacation at the ventriloquism museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky.
Al Franken: God Spoke lies somewhere between the two extremes; the interest it has is thanks more to Franken’s personal charm and righteous pugnacity than to anything Hegedus and Doob do in chronicling it. In fact, in their hands Franken comes out, if anything, a little diminished. Not that Hegedus and Doob present a disparaging picture of the comedian turned scourge of the right—far, far from it. But we don’t know much about Franken coming out of the movie that we didn’t already know going in—which begs the uncharitable question of why it was made in the first place.
The film is unclear on chronology (there’s not so much as a subtitle to establish time or place), but it opens on a bookstore with Franken plugging his 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. It skips merrily through Franken’s publicity tour (with a triumphant snicker at Fox News’ ill-advised lawsuit over the book, which was pretty much laughed out of court) and then follows him through what seems to be a little over a year, including the launch of Franken’s Air America radio talk show, the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and the presidential election, fading out as Franken mulls over a run for the U.S. Senate against Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican who walked to victory in 2002 when Franken’s idol, incumbent Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash during the campaign.
Along the way we get quick snippets of Franken taking on his right-wing targets, especially Bill O’Reilly, whose seething hatred of Franken is a sight to see. Franken debates a snarky Ann Coulter, who looks tight-lipped and emaciated. At convention time, Franken takes on Sean Hannity (who favors Franken with an expansive grin, like an uncle at a blue-collar Irish wedding giving a boys-will-be-boys nod toward a disturbance at the back of the hall) and Michael Medved (who in his patiently priggish way seems to be trying to make a point, but neither Franken nor the filmmakers allow him to finish a sentence). The substance of these debates doesn’t seem to have made it out of Hegedus and Doob’s editing machine; apparently, it should be enough for us to see Al taking them on.
We get bits and pieces about Franken’s affection for his late father and his wife, Franni, but any sense of Al Franken beyond what we’ve already seen on Saturday Night Live, heard on Air America and read in his books eludes Hegedus and Doob. How could they have a camera in his bedroom as he wakes up on Election Day 2004 expecting a Kerry win, yet give so little sense of intimacy with the man?
As a record of the Al Franken you already know and love, Hegedus and Doob’s rather slapdash movie is fun. But if you expect any new insights, well, you’re just going to have to pick up a camcorder and follow him around yourself.