Volume 19 • Issue 19 | September 22 - 28, 2006

A fan letter to Al FrankenSeaport Museum receives Andrea Doria medallion

By Steven Snyder

There was a day, or so I’m told, when mocking the president was considered impolite. But as far as this century is concerned, the presidency has not just been a target of satire but the popular bull’s eye, and Bush-bashing has become almost a badge of honor among those comedians and audiences who have tried to laugh the pain of two elections, two wars and Guantánamo away.

Because of all this, the prodding and mocking of today’s president has become a less sophisticated or daring sport — a fact “Al Franken: God Spoke” fails to recognize. In following the rising popularity of comedian Al Franken — who some might know as Stuart Smalley from “Saturday Night Live,” and a few others might recognize from the liberally-leaning Air America radio network — directors Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus have created a 90-minute celebration of Franken’s attacks on the right. Sadly, this result is a mixed bag of footage, which seems to think it’s far edgier than it really is.

The fawning over Franken begins in the courtroom, with Franken winning his legal battle with the right-leaning Fox News. (The cable channel sued Franken when the comedian used the slogan “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.”) “God” then traces his steps while on a book tour, where he publicly lashes out and debates his neo-conservative counterparts, and then captures Franken’s shift into campaign mode as he rallies the troops for the 2004 election. As he takes his first awkward steps as an Air America talk show host, he promises victory for the Democrats over George W. Bush and watches the gloating go down in flames thanks to Ohio.

The title of the film alludes to a rather humorous skit created for the movie, in which Franken turns the holy claims of Bush (who has claimed that God Himself told him to bring an end to the tyranny in Iraq) against the president. Franken says his mission is to “answer the fuckheads” who have been spreading the lies he so despises. “I take what they say and use it against them,” he says at another point in the film. “What I do is jujitsu. They say something ridiculous, and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. That’s my job.”

Franken, though, does get it just right some days, and his sense of irony and mischievousness will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who has wondered where the retort lies to the daily vitriol of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and their supporters. But what’s lacking is something deeper than this snapshot of Franken’s far-too-often, run-of-the-mill sense of humor. We could stand some hint of what it’s like inside the Franken camp (his wife seems to be the real foundation of his burgeoning political career) or what it’s like to be on the losing end of the fear mongering war.

When Franken promises victory in the presidential election, we don’t get to see him apologizing later for his mistaken gloating. When he battles head-to-head with conservative pundits, Doob and Hegedus always depict his appearances as victories, despite the fact that the politicians he is arguing so passionately against have more viewers, voters and headlines on their side.

And so what remains is a feel-good tribute to Franken’s agitating style. Those who enjoy the comedian will no doubt enjoy the documentary, which holds him up as a poster child of the liberal fighters out there on the front lines. But it never makes that leap into a more widespread commentary about the nature of political satire or the growing divide in America’s political discourse. This is more a fan letter than a documentary, and while “God Spoke” has its place, it’s a rather small one. At a time when people are so fiercely and widely divided, “God Spoke” seems, well, naïve.


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