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Left of the Dial (2005)

Prism Planet

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.

--Will Rogers

It's impolite to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. If the same goes for film reviews, I'm probably a rude son of a bitch. Here, there, and everywhere, I've peppered my critiques with personal biases--sometimes, I'm sure, where they didn't belong.

People bring the sum of their entire human experience with them every time they go to the movies, whether they're conscious of it or not. Contrary to popular opinion, there's no way to experience art without at least subconsciously judging someone or something that has nothing to do with the piece at hand. Were that the case, most critiques would read like this:

"The movie began and ended. Taylor Kitsch and Daphne Zuniga foiled a robbery plot in ninety minutes. The lighting was sufficiently luminescent. The score was slightly intrusive. Two stars."

The key to relative objectivity is being conscious of bias and understanding how one's baggage relates to the thing being observed. It's not a perfect science, of course. Will Adam Sandler's new movie not make me laugh because I'm sure to have seen variations on the same jokes in his last five films? Or will the jokes be new and simply unfunny? Or will they fall flat by offending me? Why would they offend me? Is it my Catholic upbringing? Or my split from organized religion at an early age? And on and on and on.*

You may not understand what rejecting Catholicism has to do with my inability to appreciate certain kinds of fart jokes, just as I might not get why you'll forgive Prometheus' poorly drawn characters, plot holes and lack of coherence--while calling Transformers: Dark of the Moon a stupid waste of time. It all goes back to the unique mental bouillabaisse that comprises perception. 

The point of this preamble (or pre-ramble, as it were) is to give you my perspective on a nigh-unreviewable documentary about Air America Radio, called Left of the Dial. Debuting a year after the first liberal talk radio network took to the air in the hopes of unseating President George W. Bush, Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan's film serves as both a time capsule and a Rorschach test of the viewer's political leanings.

When I first saw the movie, I was a staunch liberal. I'd listened to Air America from day one and was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes antics, crises, and triumphs of progressive firebrand entertainers like Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, Marc Maron, and Rachel Maddow. The film begins with an American heartland montage that plays under incendiary clips of conservative talk show hosts. The message, of course, is that every inch of land between the coasts is full of gun-toting Jesus lovers who need to be rescued from an evil propaganda machine that keeps them voting against their own best interests.

Air America is painted as a hastily thrown together attempt at changing the prevailing Republican message. Principal investor Evan Cohen and his college roommate/attorney, David Goodfriend, assemble name liberal talent to spearhead the launch, many of whom have no previous radio experience. Franken, a legendary Saturday Night Live veteran and wildly successful author of humorous polemics, kicks things off with a two-person chat-fest, called The O'Franken Factor (a very public dig at rival Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor). Following behind are shows that feel very much like human spaghetti tests: the whiny, insecure Maron is teamed with reserved, big-picture thinker, Mark Riley and cold Brit Sue Ellicott; Actress/activist Janeane Garofalo is paired with filmmaker/comedian Sam Seder; Maddow, Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead, and rapper Chuck D also bounce ideas off each other for a few hours on air each day.

The result is an interesting study in the difference between the celebrity liberal, the bookworm liberal, and the rare creature that manages to be both. What's troubling is that Farrelly and O'Callaghan appear to be more in love with their subjects than their subjects' causes. Watching Rhodes throw (justifiable) tantrums because she's been sidelined in the station's promotion is cute the first time; by the third, I just wished the filmmakers had focused less on her penchant for screaming "bitch" at her callers, and more on her struggle to convince listeners that her ideology is correct. Had I not been familiar with Rhodes' show beforehand, I might have wondered how in the world she'd managed to eke out the top spot in Tampa for several years running.

In truth, my statement about the "bookworm" liberal, as it pertains to Left of the Dial, is unfair; I didn't actually gain that knowledge from watching the documentary. That's insight I brought with me from having seen Maddow and listened to Ellicott outside the context of the film. If you have this information going in, you can kind of see a case for their learned positions amidst the chaotic showboating of big personalities. Some of the puffed-chest, tidbit-spewing altercations involving name hosts are downright uncomfortable to watch.

Fear not! Celebrity political culture is only half of the film's focus. The rest is on Cohen's swindling of investors and sly managing of information, which eventually led him to sell the company to a bunch of suckers and former friends who'd just inherited several million dollars of debt. The extent of his dishonesty isn't explained very well; in fairness, this may be due to a lack of available information at the time. But we do see him sweating over a measly $600,000 pledge one moment, and then cheerfully telling someone else that he'd just secured a million-dollar deal.

After weeks of the whole staff not getting paid and affiliates in major cities getting yanked due to bounced checks, acting manager Carl Ginsburg meets with Cohen and some lawyers to sign over the company. I can only attribute the lack of baseball bats and expletives to either some weird form of collusion or a method of super-human restraint that's taught in business school.

Today's lesson: stay out of business school.

Anyway, the kicked puppy that is Air America bounces back and readies for the big 2004 Presidential election. The network's hopes are pinned on getting John Kerry elected, if not for the fate of the nation, then certainly to prove its own relevance. We all know how that turned out, and the film limps along to a melancholy "at least we're still on the air" conclusion. In 2005, this qualified as a happy ending.

Today, however, with a political outlook that's as cynical and anti-partisan as one can imagine, the final moments of Left of the Dial play like a cruel joke to me. Air America lasted another five years, shedding its core hosts and putting on a veritable who's-that of left-leaning talk show personalities before finally giving up the ghost in 2010. Left of the Dial's story stopped before the Bush administration really got going in the scandal department; I wonder how the film's narrative would've been different had the cameras kept rolling through the political ascendancy of Barack Obama?

I can't fault the filmmakers' lack of a crystal ball, of course, but I can cite their inability to make whatever case they thought they were making with this movie. Left of the Dial is kind of about celebrities getting involved with politics; it's kind of about greedy businessmen rushing into supposed big opportunities without checking the credentials of the other people on board; it's kind of about the political climate in 2004.

The problem is, it's not about any one of those things all the time. And the cute manipulations and Michael Moore-style generalizations don't help, either. For example, in the opening montage I described earlier--where we fly through the conservative heartland--how do I know that there aren't progressives living in some of those houses? The trouble with commercial left/right media is the broad strokes with which either side must paint in order to satisfy a listenership/viewership who thinks they want to hear all sides of an issue--but who get impatient when those gray tones seep through. If given enough time, Air America might have become the left's Fox News. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a positive or a negative.

If Air America has a legacy, it's that many of its hosts forged new and exciting careers from its ashes; Maron, Seder, and late comer Lionel took on podcasting. Maddow, of course, became an MSNBC darling; Franken was elected senator in Minnesota. None of that is covered in the movie, of course, which plays like half of the first act of a kind of interesting look at launching a radio network. I recommend it only as a fascination and, if you're a recovering partisan like me, a reminder of the embarrassing things we loved in our youth.

*Even now, I'm expressing bias by assuming Adam Sandler's new movie won't be funny. Though some might call that "psychic ability".

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