Al Franken has made a career cracking jokes about—and occasionally impersonating—Washington politicians. If the new film Al Franken: God Spoke provides any indication, he may soon end up as one. Shot over the course of 2003 to 2005 by veteran documentarians Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, the film traces Franken’s evolution from sketch comic to would-be Democratic contender in Minnesota’s 2008 Senate race.
Hegedus and Doob, filmmakers of the vérité school, have proven they can spot political personalities on the rise. In 1992, they collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated The War Room, a film focused on the backstage triumphs of campaign strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as they launched then little-known Arkansas governor Bill Clinton into the White House.
In this new film, the camera rarely leaves Franken’s side, letting us in on his unguarded Minnesota laugh and exposing his short fuse for the conservative punditry’s “simplistic black and white babble about how the world works.” The film swerves occasionally toward hero worship, but never drags as Franken’s shoulder-rubbing with prominent liberals like Walter Mondale, Michael Moore, and Hillary Clinton is spiced with well picked footage from the depths of the Saturday Night Live archive.
In their portrait of Franken, Hegedus and Doob succeed in capturing the surge of progressive energy leading up to the 2004 elections as well as the deep disappointment that followed. The film is carried by Franken’s quick wit and swelling convictions—which makes reliving the Democrats’ loss easier to stomach—and removes any doubt that Franken is one of the left’s most fearless defenders against the constant spin-politics of the Fox News era.
Mother Jones: Your style of filmmaking requires spending a long time with your subject. What was it about Al that made you say, “I want to spend two years following this guy around?”
Chris Hegedus: In films, you really don’t know what is going to happen. But Al was going through a turning point in his life. He wrote this book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: a Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Fox News decided to sue him for using “fair and balanced” in the title. And that seemed like a funny and interesting topic, but unfortunately the lawsuit was laughed out of court in one day. So there was no film there, but Al was going on tour with his book and he was describing to us the huge crowds that were showing up for his book. People were very hungry for somebody to fight back the distortion of the right wing media and the bungling of the war, and Al was doing that. He was turning a corner, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next. We did not know that Air America was going to be part of his new life. So it’s a risk when you do these films.
Nick Doob: We did have a sense that he was part of a political groundswell that made him very appealing to us as a character. He seemed to be very tied into Democratic politics and politicians and he also was hooked in to a general feeling that we have to beat George Bush. He seemed to represent the feelings of a group of people, so he was a good character that way.
MJ: Since you are veterans of the campaign trail genre, what have you seen change for the Democrats in 2004 compared to what you witnessed during Clinton’s successful run in 1992?
ND: We were in a different arena on this one. Al wasn’t in the thick of the Kerry campaign; it was not Al being in the war room. What we did see was the beginning of a radio station, and the beginning of something for Al. We had this sense that Al was not going to be satisfied with carping from the sidelines; that he needed to get involved in a more fundamental way in social issues
MJ: Was it difficult making an authentic documentary about someone used to being in front of a camera?
CH: Well Al was sort of like James Carville in that he really loved an audience, so it was easy to follow him around in that respect. We knew it was going to be something different from the first day. We said, “Can we hang out with you? What are you doing later today?” He said, “I am doing a photo shoot for Playboy.” When we get down there, there were all these costumes and they were dressing him up as God or Moses or something. Later that day he went down to the Democratic presidential debate in New York and gave the keynote address and he seemed like a real insider and he knew all the candidates and we knew it was going to be a different type of film right off.