Focusing on Franken

The directors of <i>Al Franken: God Spoke</i> on the funnyman turned would-be senator.

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.

MJ: How much access did he give you when filming his life?

CH: Al was great. He just left us on our own. He didn’t want any control over the film, which was good and bad. Bad because if we did not keep up on things, he would not tell us what was going on. We had to be on our toes which I think is really a fair trade when you make these kinds of films. At the same time he was incredibly sharing with us of his life, which is a real privilege when you are doing these films. The only restriction that he put on us was that he was not going to make entrees into every situation he did with a lot of powerful people. We were lucky a lot of times to sneak in on his coat-tails. One example is when he goes to a Newsweek party at the Republican National Convention and confronts Henry Kissinger and does his imitation of Henry Kissinger to his face, things like that, but he didn’t really care what we did.

MJ: What was it like being a fly on the wall at events with so many high profile people?

ND: You know the one thing we try not to do is be a fly on the wall, because what happens when you try to do that is that you become this sort of sneaky surveillance camera off in the distance. At the Newsweek party, it was important to be close just so we could get sound, so the camera was never more than two feet away from him or anybody who he was talking to. The thing is to be upfront about what you are doing. I think both of us as camera people try to keep contact with the person we are shooting, not just shooting but trying to keep eye contact so you are a person in the room, and not some surveillance person. This allows other people to see you as a person instead of as a mechanical recording object and it is less threatening.

MJ: There is a lot of overlap in your filmographies. What allows for the ease of your collaboration? Is it a sense of shared film style or shared politics?

CH: I think we have a shared style. We have both been interested, since the ’70s, in making films about people who are very passionate about something and going through something in their lives where they are taking a risk, where they are kind of jumping off the bridge, because of the way that action creates characters. And I think that if these films are made well and really follow something through a situation, they can be just as compelling and dramatic as fiction films. They don’t tell you what to think. Al Franken: God Spoke doesn’t tell you how to think about an issue or even about Al. You come to it by yourself by watching what he does and how he acts towards people and how he stands up for what he believes in.

MJ: It sounds as if you prefer vérité filmmaking to investigative documentary exposés. Politically, why is it that you have made so many films like this?

CH: I think ultimately these films are history and they become a part of history. You see them differently as the years go by. I mean, when you watch The War Room now it starts out with Clinton denying that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. As the years have gone by we see that footage in a different way. I think our film about Al already has a historical context. I think Al has been part of a movement that has defined this last election in an interesting way. I mean there was Moveon.org, there was Jon Stewart, and Michael Moore, and unlikely candidates like Al Sharpton, and Al [Franken] was part of this push to fight back and take back the presidency.

MJ: Looking back at this last year’s election why do you think it is that liberals are so good at winning the war of satire but not necessarily so good at winning elections?

ND: Oh boy. That’s a big question because there are a lot of other things going on. You have to admit that Karl Rove has been very effective at organizing people’s thinking and the left really doesn’t seem motivated that way. There is something so effective about the way the Republicans run a campaign, and I don’t think that Democrats really want to emulate that in their heart of hearts. They want to run on issues, on the ways to improve what’s going on in this country. Rove is amazing in the Kerry Swift Boat business. I assume Rove was involved, and even if he wasn’t it was sort of a Rove way of thinking to go after somebody’s strength. And I don’t think it occurs to Democrats to use those sort of tactics. And the war of satire: the Republicans are ripe for it. They are such good targets for satire, but I don’t think that wins elections. I think Al is effective in motivating people’s political energy but I don’t think he converts people. I don’t think satire converts people.

MJ: Will Al be able to make the transition from a radio host, who relies on humor to expose the hypocrisy of Right, to someone who can advocate for progressive issues?

ND: I think he is very suited to be a senator. You wonder how he would be as a governor or as a president. But for a senator the important thing is to vote and Al is so suited in his mindset to being that kind of a decision maker. He is very thorough. He does his homework. He has opinions about how he can improve things in this country and that is what you want your senator to be. He listens to people. I think people think of Al as somebody who is wound up in his own world of comedy. But he is not. He is somebody who has this split in his head. He is not exactly an entertainer as much as he expresses his feeling through jokes. And he uses it now as a way to talk about issues, but the issues are what really give him energy. I think that’s what you want a senator to be. He is not going to be somebody that is going to make the transportation systems work. He is not going to be a good governor in that sense, somebody who governs. He is going to be somebody who legislates. I think he is very suited for that.

MJ: Do you expect him to run in 2008?

CH: I don’t know yet. He has moved to Minnesota. He is very serious about it, but right now he is seeing if he is a viable candidate. He is doing everything that he would need to do to be a viable candidate. He is trying to raise money and really affect this election that is coming up.

MJ: If he gets on the campaign trail, can we still expect all the things that have made him famous. Will we still get the impersonations and uncensored jokes? Or will we see a different Al Franken?

ND: That’s sort of what our film is about. That is what we are all wondering. I think Al is wondering that.

CH: I don’t think Al can leave the humor behind. He will have to curtail himself somewhat, but I think he sees the power of telling stories and getting the messages across.

MJ: For many people, the closer they get to the inner workings of politics, the more jaded they become. But that does not seem to be the tone of your films at all. Are there still heroes in your version of politics?

CH: I guess we like to look for people who really want to do something good. They don’t end up being whole people or saints or anything. Everybody is a very human character, and Al is definitely one of them. But I think there are very few people in our world who stand up for the truth and try to do something good, and I think Nick and I saw that in Al. He looks for the truth in the situation, he is totally fallible and human, and makes mistakes, and everything else, but I think that makes him more interesting to people because he is that way but doesn’t lose his passion. I think that is what I saw in everyone when we made The War Room: that kind of idealism and hope that they could change things. And some people can hold on to that longer than others and those people are kind of precious.

ND: In the Clinton campaign and in Al himself there is a kind of idealism that is energizing and so it is good filmmaking material. And more than that, it is something you can believe in for a long stretch of time. I can’t imagine that Al could get jaded somehow.

MJ: As you said, your films become like history, and your perceptions of them change in hindsight. Has your own idealism lost some of its luster? Looking back at The War Room, do things that seemed idealistic now seem more calculated?

ND: In the 1960s there was a draft and now there isn’t. The draft mobilized an opposition that was amazing, the country was much more divided then it is now and much more passionate in its opposition to the war. I think we are making these kinds of films because we are hooked in to a kind of idealizing opposition that I think is sort of a given as long as there are going to be the George Bushs and Richard Nixons around. You don’t get tired of that, you don’t get jaded about those sorts of issues. Now, people don’t know really what they think about Iraq. They don’t know how to end it. In Vietnam it was clear we had to get the hell out of there. Today, what our goals are politically is much more unclear than they were in other times. And somehow you want to find guidance in the people who have ideals. And people who are clear headed about what to do.

MJ: If given the chance would you ever want to make a film about a conservative? Is it idealism that interests you or is it the larger process of what gets people into politics?

ND: I made a film about Ollie North. It was interesting to watch the process and all that, but there was something about it. You were tired at the end of the day. Filmmaking is hard work period, and it is long hours, but if you are energized by it, it is not hard. If you believe in the people that you are filming it is not hard. I found it very tiring to make that film. It is interesting but it doesn’t get your juices going.

MJ: So there was no idealism on that end?

ND: Oh Jesus, I don’t think so. It was very cynical. I actually like the guys who ran the campaign. They were interesting guys. Maybe they were motivated, but I don’t know. I always felt it was more about tactics than ideals. Whereas if there is anything that Al’s about, it’s making the world a better place.