Al Franken: God Spoke–Docu of Satirist-Politician

“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”–Al Franken

Noted documentarians Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus must like the liberal satirist-turned politician Al Franken for in their highly watchable but not too critical work, “Al Franken: God Spoke,” he comes across as both charismatic and witty, representing a new brand of American folk hero, even more iconoclastic than Michael Moore, who appears in the docu in a very good scene.

A vet comedian, who first made a name for himself on SNL, Franken is acerbic in his barbs against Bush and the right wing, but also smooth and diplomatic when he needs to be. He proves to be a smart political animal, highly adjustable to his varied surrounding, where he quickly assess his opponents, even more quickly decides on his assault strategy, and then just as quickly attacks.

It remains to be seen whether Al Franken is speaking only or mostly to the converted. But it’s a healthy sign for both this docu and the genre in general that a new, entrepreneurial distributor, Balcony Films, headed by Massachusetts-based Connie White and Greg Kendall, is releasing the movie theatrically.

Understandably, some of the material will be familiar from Moore’s own tirade, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and other works that have effectively recorded the general American populace growing discontent and disenchantment in the post 9/11 era. Nonetheless, “Al Franken” is still perfectly suitable to the current politically-charged zeitgeist.

The circumstances in which “Al Franken” was made are just as significant as the docu itself. Reportedly, it was the day of the New York City blackout, August 14, 2003 (I know the date because I happened to be in NYC’ Kennedy Airport…), when producer Rebecca Marshall read an article about Fox News’ plans to sue Al Franken for trademark infringement for using the term, “Fair and Balanced” in the title of his new book, “Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” Seeing the makings of a hilarious and socially relevant film, Marshall tossed out the idea of an Al Franken docu.

However, when the case was thrown out of courtquicker than you can say Jack Nicholson, in less than an hourso was the possibility of a cinema verite film about Al Franken being sued by Fox News in a case that most commentators and lawyers perceived as preposterous and ludicrous.

Still attracted to Franken as a character, Hegedus and Doob were therefore delighted, when the publicity generated by Fox News’ failed lawsuit propelled the book to the top of the NY Times’ best-seller list.

A couple of weeks later, when they heard that Al Franken, who turned out to be their neighbor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was going on a book tour, they decided to call him up, which began their fruitful collaboration. Their docu begins with a book-signing party, in which Franken reconstructs the feud with O’Reilly,
which predictably turned the book into a NY Times best-seller.

In this road-like movie, the makers of “The War Room,” their fascinating docu about Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, turn their camera on another burgeoning, though very different political career.

Using again their signature cinema verite style, Doob and Hegedus shot large footage over the course of two years, which follows the former Saturday Night Live comedian-turned best-selling author and political satirist, from his highly publicized feud with Bill O’Reilly over Franken’s book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” to his relentless campaign against George Bush and the Right Wing in the 2004 electionsand beyond.

As with every documentary, Doob and Hegedus benfit from gaining access to indispensable events. From Franken’s tour in Iraq, to the studios of liberal radio network Air America (a major achievement in its own right, considering our conservative and moralistic climate), and onto the campaign trail, Doob and Hegedus are granted entre to various life-segments of one of the most effective political satirists of our time. Franken fearlessly confronts pundits and politicians, blurring the boundaries between political satire and impassioned citizenry, perhaps updating the folkloristic heroic style of Will Rogers during the Depression era.

The film benefits immensely from its gallery of colorful gallery of players, not just bleeding democrats and liberals such as Michael Moore, Al Gore, and Senator Ted Kennedy, but also hardcore right-wingers like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The verbal confrontation with his famously blond (and Franken does talk about her long, beautiful hair) Ann Coulter is amusingly wicked.

Other highlights include Franken on the campaign trail as he stumps for John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential campaign, and Franken bringing his Air America show to the Republican National Convention, a sequence that resembles the directors’ 1993 “The War Room,” superior, Oscar-nominated docu, on which D.A. Pennebaker was a producer, juts like he is on this one.

What marks Franken’s style are barbed irreverence, ridicule and contempt for his foes, and occasionally even outright anger and outrage. Describing Air America to potential advisers, he rails against right-wing talk radio’s “simplistic black-and-white babble about the way the world works.”

Though there are several clips of O’Reilly’s comments about his longtime opponent, Franken emerges in almost every battle triumphant, including those with Sean Hannity and Michael Medved, a result of his extraordinary quick it but also the choice of duels portrayed on screen; it’s realistic to assume that there were occasions in which Franken didn’t always have the upper hand. My point is that watching the docu you get the feeling that he’s much brighter than his enemies, some of whom are not worthy of his wrath.

Younger viewers, who were not around in the 1970s, will learn and enjoy watching the flashbacks to Al Franken as a “Saturday Night Live” regular. There’s also a hilarious clip from a more recent SNL show, in 2002, in which host and Presidential loser Al Gore, who seems more relaxed and energetic than during his heated campaign, is comforted by a guru named Stuart Smalley (embodied by Franken, a guest on that show), who asks Gore to repeat some witty sentences to a wall that cannot be revealed here for spoiling the fun under his (Smalley’s) tight instruction and supervision.

It’s hard to tell why the docu is not more critical or thorough of its subject, for there is not much discussion of the psychology and motivation leading to Franken’s transformation from monologist and comedian to a liberal political activist.

Docu also neglects (by design, I think) to offer family background or commentary about–and from–closed ones, though the two brief scenes with Franken’s devoted wife are charming, indicating good marriage and complete support.

As with all docus, selection and omission of data are the rules of the game. Hence, there’s no footage about how Franken must have felt in the wake of the 2004 Presidential Elections results, or more specifically, what he did after the failed effort to elect John Kerry.

Franken seems self-aware toward the end of the docu, when he discusses his self-reinvention, this time around as a contender for public office. If anything, Franken’s life thus far proves that, contrary to what Hemingway said, “There are second acts in American lives.” Franken has had three chapters already.

A note of self-criticism is suggested when Franken reassesses his strengths and weaknesses as a future politician, realizing that he may have to temper his harsh humor, be more diplomatic (which reads as less honest), and willing compromise on issues that might be important to him; it’s a price most successful politicians must endure just in order to survive.