Talk Radio (1988)
Netflix blurb: With his show going into syndication, an acerbic radio talk-show host spouts opinions that anger everyone – including a local neo-Nazi group.
Runtime: 110 minutes
Starring Eric Bogosian, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley
Written by Eric Bogosian, Oliver Stone, based on Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian and Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg by Steven Singular
Directed by Oliver Stone
First of all, great, tense, film, with a fascinating – but infuriating – main character in Barry Champlain, the aforementioned acerbic talk show host. Plot summary here.
This is a tragedy. Barry’s flaw is his ego – he takes himself way too seriously, and needs to be talked about, whether that’s positive or negative. He condescendingly argues with, and insults, his callers. He’s booed at public appearances, but he shakes that off easily. He brags about his negative press coverage – it’s all good publicity. He pushes everyone around them to their limits.
He’s a former suit salesman who was recruited as a radio host because of his outgoing personality and his voice, but quickly forced his way into the spotlight, earning his own show after guest spots on another.
But, as his boss puts it, Barry doesn’t know when to quit. He keeps pushing and pushing and pushing. Even when his show is going into syndication, he finds a reason to bitch. He doesn’t know what he wants other than to be talked about. That’s it.
He’s in the perfect job for it. A confrontational talk radio host, a bit of a celebrity, someone who has enough reach to get his wish, and that, in turn, feeds his ego. When syndication comes calling, hey – he’s going national. He’ll be heard by millions.
But, as the boss warns, he takes it too far. He continually pushes his listeners – many of whom are outright threatening, including bomb threats and ominous assurances they know what he looks like and where he lives – until one of those listeners kills him, shooting him to death in the parking lot after his show.
This is all despite the many, many opportunities Barry has to change. The many warnings he gets about the path he’s on. He doesn’t – can’t or won’t – listen. He doesn’t learn from or overcome his flaw, and it destroys him.
Interestingly, the killer caller who offs Barry in the end is a bit of a parallel to the host. He actually follows through – to a tragic extreme – whereas everyone else? They think, it seems to me, that Barry is, essentially, a joke. They don’t take him that seriously. He’s fun to hate, they like booing him at public appearances. Some of the more-intense ones even like messing with him via fake bomb threats and dead rats.
But it’s a lark. The woman who throws a drink in his face? She’s drunk and laughing at him. The bomb, as mentioned, isn’t a real bomb. The station manager and new network rep don’t care what he does – he’s hated, and that means listeners, which means ratings. Even Kent, the guy who claimed his girlfriend was overdosing admits it was all a lark. He doesn’t take anything seriously, certainly not Barry. He thinks he’s a laugh a minute.
And when Barry has his on-air meltdown, insulting his listeners – all of them – things simply go back to normal. The calls resume. It comes and goes. He’s a circus act, he’s playing his role.
He even suggests he won’t be in the next day. His boss’s response? Barry will come in. He always comes in.
Barry takes himself and his show incredibly seriously, but in the end, he has no power. No real influence. And that’s hammered home by the calls that play over the closing credits, after his death: he was fun to listen to, fun to argue with and hate, but that’s it.
To everyone but his killer, of course, who takes things every bit as seriously as Barry does.
To recap: Barry’s ego and need to be the centre of attention is a detriment to eveyone – his family (ex-wife), his friends, his co-workers, his listeners, his show, himself. He’s a smart, funny, well-spoken man, but he channels it in a negative way.
And despite repeated warnings, repeated pleas from those around him to look at himself and how he acts, Barry won’t do that, or he can’t. And that is what leads to his tragic downfall.