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‘Left’ just doesn’t look right

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, from offices in midtown Manhattan, people in trendy glasses -- upstart entertainer-intellectuals hoping to mount a counteroffensive against conservative talk radio and unseat the Bush administration -- launched a liberal network called Air America Radio.

“Left of the Dial,” an insular documentary airing tonight on HBO, chronicles Air America’s herky-jerky beginnings from the inside. The film practically portrays the launch as the equivalent of samizdat in 1970s Czechoslovakia, with on-air talent Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo and Randi Rhodes as the dissident-martyrs.

You’re supposed to root for these saviors of political and cultural discourse, but the film feels too cozy with its subjects, too unquestioning about their ingrained sense of moral rectitude. What it ends up capturing more vividly is how unappealing righteous indignation can look, regardless of its political stance. Watching “Left of the Dial,” it is possible to admire the crusade (conservative bloviators have long since hijacked AM talk, particularly chilling during an election year) but be turned off by the crusaders, who too often convey self-importance and intellectual certainty.

Garofalo, who with comic Sam Seder hosts a show called “Majority Report,” tends to exude the perennially backfiring East Coast liberal establishment elitism most annoyingly. These are people who read the New York Times very, very carefully. What’s more, Garofalo can speak for the red states. “They’ve managed to con about 50% of the populace into voting against their best interests for the last 30 years,” she says about her rivals. “They’ve managed to swindle people into thinking that there’s such a thing as a pro-life, pro-war, pro-gun, pro-death-penalty Christian.”

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Garofalo’s worried that she won’t do well on-air, but with raps like that she’s underselling herself. Everyone in the movie frets -- about the fate of Air America and by extension the fate of the free world -- but the fretting often seems like so much mugging for the camera, and this is where the filmmakers’ lack of distance from their subjects yields the film’s most tiresome moments. Comedian Marc Maron has several pointless near-meltdowns in meetings that feel like he’s most delighted by the camera paying attention to the fact that he’s melting down.

“Left of the Dial” is the work of filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Caitlin O’Callaghan, who worked for Michael Moore on Moore’s guerrilla documentary series “TV Nation.”

From the first frames of the documentary -- shots of American streetscapes as we hear conservative radio zealots spew their rhetoric (“Tell me the difference between Osama bin Laden and the ACLU?” one says), you sense the power of the subject but also a kind of reductive, absolute good versus absolute evil argument being established, like in a Moore film.

Coincidentally or not, the on-air team of Lizz Winstead and Chuck D., who were a key part of the initial lineup but who have since departed Air America, are barely glimpsed in the film. Were they edited out after the fact?

Franken, meanwhile, allows the filmmakers to eavesdrop on his phone calls but, curiously, never acknowledges the film being made. At the other end of that spectrum is Rhodes, a talk radio veteran who, off-air but on-camera, keeps betraying her insecurity among these hipper humorist-pundits of the left. And yet, she’s also the one who seems to understand talk radio most implicitly, as when she berates Ralph Nader for the 2000 presidential defeat, shouting him down until he hangs up on the interview.

Surprisingly, there isn’t much drama in the early stages, unless you think the principals will be carted away by the Bushies for some form of sedition.

Then an hour in, the tension mounts, when founding CEO and principal investor Evan Cohen turns out to have misled both the staff and the media about ad sales and his surplus of millions. Bills go unpaid and Air America is yanked off the air in Chicago and Los Angeles, its entire future cast in doubt.

The cameras capture the scrambling and dissembling inside the offices, but the tone of the movie doesn’t change, because all along, everyone’s been overselling the idea of Air America as a seat-of-the-pants venture anyway. “If we don’t get an immediate cash infusion,” the new CEO, Carl Ginsburg, says worriedly, “George Bush and his buddies at the Pentagon are gonna run roughshod all over the world.”

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“Other than that,” he manages to add, “we don’t take ourselves very seriously.”

Today, a year later, Air America lives, including in Los Angeles, having overcome its near-financial-death experience to become a viable alternative on AM talk, its ratings competitive and its money base reportedly solid. But as for “Left of the Dial,” it feels like the kind of DVD you can buy at a MoveOn.org meet-up, something to take home to have your unshakeable opinions unshakably confirmed.

*

America Undercover ‘Left of the Dial’

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Where: HBO

When: 8-10 tonight

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

Al Franken...Himself

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Randi Rhodes...Herself

Janeane Garofalo...Herself

Evan Cohen...Himself

David Goodfriend...Himself

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Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Director and producer, Patrick Farrelly, Kate O’Callaghan.


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