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Documenting Al Franken

In his new documentary, Al Franken is a changed man.

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2006 • By LOUIS WITTIG
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LIBERAL CELEBRITY (or celebrity liberal) Al Franken is not the sort of guy who leaves you with a lot of questions about who he is or what he's all about. Except for the simple one: What moved the Saturday Night Live quipster to transform himself into an ardent liberal crusader?

The potential enormity of the answer could have been one reason for the demeanor of the crowd in the West Village art house theater not too long ago. They were waiting for Franken's new documentary Al Franken: God Spoke to start and they seemed unusually and reverently quiet.

God Spoke begins with God speaking--instructing Franken to go amongst His people and expose right-wing blowhards and mock Fox News. He (Franken) does. A film crew tags along. He needles Ann Coulter at a debate, her prickliness set against his endearing clownishness. He joshes with people at book signings. He shoots down wonkily adversarial questions from college students. He returns to Minnesota and walks through his childhood home. For a few moments Franken muses poignantly about his father's influence on his comedy and his politics. Franken gets right up to the edge of answering that one mystifying question and then--Bam!--he's back in New York, mingling at an Air America launch party. No deep thoughts necessary; Jack Handy breathes a sigh of relief.

ASSEMBLED BY DIRECTORS Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room), God Spoke is high vérité documentary-making. The pair are vérité pros, confident in the present tense, the fly-on-the-wall camera; confident that just following Franken, letting Al be Al, will substitute for insight. The technique works great when there's story, and it can work without story--when the subject is deep. It would be the perfect technique for making a documentary about, say, Bob Dylan. Here it is less well suited. One does not expect resolution for a documentary which lacks a narrator, but God Spoke lacks even direction. Fortunately, Franken's personality provides some momentum. A natural comic, he's perpetually on, getting into the middle of every situation, acting to get a reaction from those around him; mostly with humor.

He's on during his radio show. He's on in staff meetings and he's bouncing as the 2004 election closes in, wondering aloud how much of his post-election airtime he should dedicate to gloating. A day? A week?

Franken is on when he muses about conservatives who, knowing his liberal bent, still ask for his autograph: "In this country, celebrity trumps ideology." True, and the longer Franken is on, the truer it seems--though not in the way he intends it.

Franken's boisterous partisan energy seems mixed with a noticeable and faintly sad need to be close to important people, big political figures--to pull them into his spotlight and to sidle into theirs. For instance, at one Democratic event, Franken takes the mike and starts a routine--pulling Chuck Schumer, who's been standing quietly in the background, into the jokes at every opportunity. Schumer, shy or embarrassed, waves him off demurely.

GOD SPOKE follows Franken to a conservative party too, during the Republican convention in New York. He rambles about all the trouble his host is afraid he'll make. And then--friendly mingling! Franken hides histrionically in the coat check, demonstrating for the camera how well-known and well-reviled he is with this crowd. Alan Simpson and William Safire congenially joke with him to come out. Franken forces his way into Henry Kissinger's conversation, clumsily trying to get Kissinger to invite him to do his Kissinger impression. He doesn't. Franken starts it anyway. It's a little uncomfortable to watch.

When Kerry concedes, the camera holds tight on Al's face--a single tear, a perfect Indian-by-the-side-of-the-road-watching-passing-drivers-litter tear--rolls down his cheek. Franken isn't the same afterwards. Exeunt Air America. He's back in Minnesota, getting choked up and telling crowds stories about his wife's underprivileged upbringing. He gets a standing ovation when he tells them he's thinking of running for Paul Wellstone's old Senate seat. Alone with the camera at the end, Franken says that if he does run, he won't be able to be his easygoing goofster self anymore.

WHEN THE LIGHTS CAME UP at the screening, Franken was perched on a stool in front of the stage, flanked by Doob and Hegedus, and ready to take questions from the audience. "First off," he said with some aplomb, "What did you like best about me?"