In 1992, filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus documented Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, resulting in a still-noteworthy chronicle of political contending titled The War Room. Twelve years later, co-directors Hegedus and Nick Doob (who was cinematographer for The War Room) followed the race of 2004, only this time their subject was interestingly not one of the candidates. Al Franken: God Spoke, which presents a year in the life of the title comedian/author/radio talk-show host, is a humorous, but more importantly illustrative, documentary about the weight of the media -- especially the comedic media -- on the last presidential election.
Franken, who got his break on Saturday Night Live, is one of today's most influential political humorists, and, along with Jon Stewart and Michael Moore, he represents liberal America's unfortunate dependence on jesters instead of kings. The film opens with the publication of his latest book, which attacks the Bush administration and conservative individuals such as Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, then goes on to present the beginnings of his show on Air America Radio and observes the ensuing war between him and the right-wing media, particularly O'Reilly and Sean Hannity at Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. During an early scene, he tells a classroom of students, "I take what they say and use it against them." This practice is nothing new, yet somehow in a time when kids get their news more from comedy shows like The Daily Show than from newspapers, it makes someone like Franken an important political figure.
Mostly the documentary is a profile on Franken, filled with biographical info and archive footage, but many a time it inadvertently spotlights the problems with our country's current attention to politics -- or current attention to those with attention to politics -- and hints at the problems of the Democratic Party by avoiding any concentration on John Kerry and his campaign. The film contains a very fair and balanced inclusion of points made by both left-wing and right-wing commentators about the significance of either's attitudes toward politics in general and certain politicians specifically, and no individual, not even Franken, is completely glorified or disgraced -- by the filmmakers at least. As with any observational documentary, Al Franken: God Spoke is an example of life's unpredictability. It exists as something entirely different because Kerry lost the election than what it would be if he had won, and because of the circumstances, Franken exposes himself as imperfect during a presumptuously gloating staff-meeting before Election Day.
While watching this documentary I thought back on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and how in hindsight that film becomes not insignificant, but differently significant now that Bush is in his second term. In his review of Fahrenheit, J. Hoberman in The Village Voice compared Moore's possible influence on Bush's losing in 2004 to impersonator Dana Carvey's effecting Bush, Sr.'s loss in 1992, claiming that, "Carvey did more than anyone in America ... to drive Bush père from the White House." The designation of such importance on comedy's role in politics now seems the error of a political era reliant on it. The great thing about a show like Saturday Night Live (where Carvey's impersonations were on display), is its non-partisan practice of mocking all political sides and personalities, and it is important to contemplate hypothetical right-wing equivalents to The Daily Show, Michael Moore and, of course, Al Franken, in order to appreciate the entertainment of comedy and to slightly depreciate its service.
Side by side The War Room and Al Franken: God Spoke are strikingly indicative of their political environments by presenting the kind of heroes being recognized at the time. In '92, it was the making of a star out of a political strategist (James Carville); in '04 out of a political satirist. Each is valuable to the study of political campaigning, with the newer film completing the pair as the "what not to do" in an election year.