Oliver Stone was on a roll in late 80s, at the peak of his powers with Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. Talk Radio rarely comes up. Based on the play written by Eric Bogosian which follows a controversial radio host who likes to push the envelope, tapping the raw nerves of the American psyche.
Barry Champlain takes calls from the fringe: the angry, the dispossessed, the jilted, the vigilantes, and the bile spewing haters. The issues discussed are very much 80s: AIDS, the war on drugs, racism, distrust of government - the midway point between Post-Watergate cynicism and Tea Party paranoia. Like so many shock jocks, Barry browbeats his callers, it's an Est seminar on the radio.
The film takes a few unfortunate detours when exploring the backstory of Barry and how he got into radio. Those scenes slow down the momentum, but I suppose they were meant to humanize Barry - a lost soul himself.
On the verge of going national, Barry's under pressure to take the craziest, most outrageous callers. He talks to a zoned out metal head, Neo-Nazis, and extremely creepy callers detailing the crimes they have allegedly committed. All edgy high drama that TV cannot capture, the kind of content to make audiences salivate.
By the late 80s, the loudest and crudest voices took over the airwaves. Barry would never command such a large audience today, but he would find a niche audience of malcontents. One could read Talk Radio as the death of liberalism, predicting the new politics to come. It's all sound bytes with no context - the loudest voices always win. And Barry's the garbage man, processing all the trash that people do and say with violence as an ever present possibility.
Bogasion delivers the performance of his life, portraying media star pushed to the brink of madness and ego, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Lenny. Talk Radio remains a potent film for its uncompromising portrait of 1980s America.