The year of Franken

Cameras follow the former “Saturday Night Live” regular on his travels around the country. (Pennebaker Hegedus Films)

" Al Franken: God Spoke" is a great title for a send-up and an even better one for a Hellerian satire of institutional insanity. It sets you up to expect a merciless lampooning of the pundits and politicians who insist they are just checking off errands on the to-do list of the Almighty after every foul. So, for that matter, do the opening images of Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus' documentary. Decked out for a Playboy shoot in a robe and flowing beard, looking like a myopic Moses, Al Franken receives his own set of divine instructions from a booming voice that tells him to "start by attacking [Bill O'Reilly, et al.], then go after the right-wing media, especially Fox." So, he does.

Twelve years after Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker trailed Clinton strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos in "The War Room" (Doob was one of the cinematographers), the filmmakers return to the scene — or the periphery, in this case — of another campaign. This time, the subject is one of the many (albeit one of the most dedicated and influential) media figures who have made it their business to jump into the political fray.

The filmmakers capture Franken's gradual transformation from cool satirist to impassioned activist in what turns out to be a vérité amble through a pivotal year in his life, starting with his dust-up with O'Reilly on CSPAN (O'Reilly got Fox to sue Franken over the title of his book and lost) and the founding of Air America, and ending with John Kerry's defeat in 2004 and Franken's announcement that he is considering a run for office.

It's no coincidence that George W. Bush has presided over what has been arguably the biggest satire boom in decades. It takes a highly developed sense of the absurd and, more important, a sophisticated grasp of the new rules of political engagement to take on not just insincerity, but a sneering, taunting, systematic insincerity designed to kill serious, on-the-level communication on contact.

You have to consider your approach carefully. One false move and you could wind up with your forehead against the class bully's palm, flailing your fists windmill-style. Everyone in class will still despise the bully, of course, but you and your noble intentions will make people want to avert their eyes. We're that shallow.

If the success of "The Daily Show" has hinged on Jon Stewart's talent for spotting the ironic tensions between current events and their public presentation, the success of the Fox News Network has hinged on its pundits' unfaltering ability to insist that no such ironic tension exists. And while the star personas of O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity — all of whom appear in the film — et al. depend on their skill in conveying authority when they don't have a leg to stand on and conviction when they know they're wrong, Stewart's depends on the ability to fake ignorance when he knows exactly what he's saying and confusion when he knows he's right.

Watching "God Spoke," a picture of Franken emerges that's not too different from the picture of Franken we already had. He seems intelligent, committed, passionate about what he does, a nice guy. But he's used to being famous, and liked, and so a little bit unself-aware — not as bad as he could be, considering, but enough to get him into trouble. In one scene that takes place in the early days of the Air America network, Franken lies on the floor singing, "I'm a little bit showbiz, I'm a little bit journalism"— which is funny, but telling. Anyone who recognizes it as a reference to Donny and Marie knows that those "little bits" amount to not much of either.

This becomes evident early in the film, when Franken speaks to a group of students at the Boston Latin School. He plays a clip of Brit Hume suggesting that, taking into account their roughly equivalent geographical size, Californians run a greater daily risk of being murdered than soldiers do of getting killed in Iraq. Franken presents the clip, then waits for the lights to go on in students' heads. To some extent, he gets the response he's looking for; the kids titter and quickly come up with a formula to disprove Hume's specious factoid. But if major dots are being connected, it's hard to see the evidence. There are no howls of outrage, no derisive laughter, nothing but some polite laughter, someone looking shocked at Franken's ease with expletives and a girl asking in a tight voice, "Are you saying there's no left-wing propaganda?"

If ever a question was made for Stephen Colbert, this is it. The only effective way of responding to a hostile provocation in question form is by pretending to agree with it. But Franken answers it sincerely.

"What I do isn't leftist propaganda," he says. "What I do is take what they say and use it against them. What I do is ju-jitsu."

Maybe the lesson here is that satirists should stay off the mat and stick to the bleachers, where they're really needed. Instead, as the film progresses, Franken seems to sink deeper into his own circle of Dantean hell, where he is compelled to take inflammatory double-speak at face value and try to engage it in debate. There's no winning this game, and Franken seems ill-prepared for the toll it takes. In one scene, Hannity tells him, "For me, politics is not personal. What I don't like about the modern liberal left is all the hate that I'm hearing." In another, Michael Medved smiles calmly as Franken explodes and pounds the table.

As Franken told those students in Boston, "celebrity trumps ideology," which may be true, but it cuts both ways. Ironically, it's Franken's long career in the entertainment business that's granted him the access, brought him the attention and kept him mingling with the power-brokers, many of whom hate him but love his work. A reporter at the Democratic National Convention asks Hannity if he considers himself a journalist — the Fox pundit has just touched him on the arm and encouraged members of the press to be patriots — Hannity stretches his lips into a smirk, raises his eyebrows in bemusement and says, "I'm a television talk-show host. And I have opinions." In other words — this is show-biz.

In a meeting with the Air America ad sales team (or, as one exec calls them, "the people who are going to monetize this on the street"), Franken is asked to explain to them what the network is about. "It's about answering these ...," he says. The monetizers stare at him blankly. Maybe they're thinking, "Those blockheads are celebrities too."