directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus
90 minutes, not yet rated
So a couple of guys start following Al Franken around with a camcorder. The original idea was to cover the trial of Fox News' lawsuit against Franken for using the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of his book Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At The Right. But the suit was laughed out of court (with actual literal laughter) so fast that they didn't even have time to start. So they just decided to film Franken's everyday activities... for two years. It worked once before for Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who followed Bill Clinton around with a camera during his first presidential campaign, and edited the result into The War Room (1993), which was nominated for Best Documentary.
The result is pure vérité. There's no narration, and the only introduction is a facetious skit of Franken in a Moses getup receiving a commandment from God to take on the right wing. The editing skips around in time, from the near-present day to Franken's salad days on Saturday Night Live, taking any random topic mentioned in conversation as an excuse for an illustrative digression -- sort of a cinematic equivalent of constantly going "Say, that reminds me of the time..." But gradually a story shape emerges: Franken's evolution from comedian to political mocker to activist to, finally, someone seriously considering a run for office.
Along the way we get to see Franken at home with his wife (apparently a very successful and enduring relationship), snippets of Franken deconstructing individual right-wing lies for fascinated audiences (who probably are all already on his side) as he tours in support of the Lies book, Franken hosting talk radio on Air America, Franken meeting big names at upper-class cocktail parties (he does his Henry Kissinger impression for Henry Kissinger), Franken making full-bore political stump speeches during the 2004 presidential campaign (which he remains confident his side will win until well into election day), and most of all, Franken in repeated on-air confrontations with the roster of conservative spokesgoons that he had challenged.
Bill O'Reilly becomes Franken's special arch-enemy, because nobody fumes more loudly or reacts with more self-righteous outrage when called a liar. He lambastes Franken repeatedly with the bitterest sorts of invective and character assasination... Franken never responds in kind, relying instead on wit, mockery, and most of all, facts. And by naming a section of his show The O'Franken Factor just to bug him.
Other conservative propagandists, such as Sean Hannity and Michael Medved and even the utterly reckless Ann Coulter, fare far better on camera than O'Reilly does, simply because they keep their cool. Hannity in particular sometimes manages to make Franken look like the one who can't hold together his professional demeanor... Franken does get quietly furious sometimes, and has never really learned the media pundit's necessary art of instantly dropping a subject, no matter how unfinished the discussion, as soon as a moderator moves on to a new question or it's time for a commercial.
As filmmaking, there's practically nothing here: it's just guys with handheld video cameras, pointing them at Franken. The art, if any, happens only in the editing room. So really, whether this film is worth seeing depends mostly on how interesting a personality Al Franken is. And on this point, it's worth noting that Franken's original nature is that he's a comedy writer, not a comedy performer. Performance has always been a secondary aspect of his schtick, and sometimes he's still awkward at it. He speaks slowly, he can be stiff when doing radio, and you can tell that though he spends a lot of time with the public, it doesn't come as naturally to him as it does to a born politician type. He's a bit too introverted to be charismatic. But, he is damn funny much of the time. And he stands up well to his opponents in the various debate confrontations -- sometimes fighting to a draw, on a few other occasions leaving the conservative in question completely pwn3d. And refreshingly, he easily maintains a cheerful and fun-loving attitude in the face of choleric bluster and defamation and big-lie propaganda -- far better than I ever could, for sure. And it is interesting to see his evolution from snickering mocker to ever more serious political player, who despite occasional awkwardness does indeed, as suggested by the facetious title of the film, seem to have found the true purpose he was made to fulfill.
Perhaps, if you aren't interested in him for pure entertainment value, the real question to ask yourself is whether you believe Al Franken will be a figure of rising importance in the coming years. The film seems to suggest that this is likely, especially if he does run for the Senate in Minnesota, as he is considering. If so, you've got a good early look, in considerable breadth if not depth, at someone who might someday be a major decision-maker, and you'll get to know him a good deal better than most of us ever really get to know our political representors.
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