In the new documentary Al Franken: God Spoke, filmmakers Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) trained their cameras for two years on the former SNLer who's now a best-selling author and political satirist, filming everything from his highly publicized feud with Bill O¹Reilly to his relentless campaign against George Bush and the right wing in the 2004 election, and beyond.
Why a documentary? Is it merely the logical next step in a media blitz that has included books, radio shows and heated debates with his counterparts in the GOP? "They came to me and said, 'Can we film you?' And I said sure," Franken tells TVGuide.com. "[Doob and Hegedus] did such great work with The War Room, I thought, 'What a great opportunity.'"
Whether Franken was truly prepared to have his every move documented is another story. "You start going, 'Oh, boy, they're following me around and I'm forgetting the camera is on....' But when I looked at the film, I went, 'I'm a great person. Funny, smart, nice to people... a real great guy!'" Knowing that he has just entered a spin zone of sorts, he has to let out a big laugh.
Those who have witnessed, even via TV or news accounts, Franken's ongoing feuds with the likes of Ann Coulter, O'Reilly or Sean Hannity may suspect that the sparks are all for show, nothing but a media ploy to drum up interest in their respective projects. Think again. While Franken allows that he and Hannity, having some common friends, "can be civil," he can't venture even that much with regard to his other two foils. "I used to be civil with Ann until she just got... I debated her twice and it's gotten ugly," he says. "So I don't think I'm going to be terribly civil with her. After the first debate, which you saw [and has since been excised from God Spoke due to rights issues], my wife just said to me, 'Oh, the poor thing.'
"There seems to be something desperately wrong with [Coulter]," Franken continues, citing her springtime assault on the "9/11 widows." "They actually did a tremendous service for this country by forcing the 9/11 Commission on this administration, which opposed it all the way. If it hadn't been for them and for the other families, I don't think we ever would've had the Commission."
As for O'Reilly, who (unsuccessfully) sought to cease publication of Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, Franken says, "I think he particularly hates me because he forced Fox to sue me, and they were laughed out of court. Yeah, O'Reilly... I have to avoid him if I see him."
One of Franken's less than successful endeavors in his ongoing campaign has been Air America, a network of radio outlets conceived as an answer to what many perceive to be a conservative bias in the national media. Looking back on the launch, Franken admits, "It didn't flourish for a number of reasons, one of which was that we shot ourselves in the foot right out of the gate. Evan Cohen, the chairman of the board, said we had enough money to go for three years and it turned out to be three weeks. So we lost Chicago and L.A. right away.
"There's blame to go all around," he concedes, "but [in summary, it was due to] not enough capital, management hasn't been great, and some of the programming hasn't been fabulous." Still, Franken takes great pride in Air America's refusal to roll over and play dead under the heels of its opponents. "I'm proud of what I've done. We still have 80-some stations, and while some of them aren't the strongest signals in the world, some are, and in the markets where we have a strong signal and some marketing, we do very well."
Before our time with Franken was up, we asked him to discuss the worst recent offense of the current presidential administration a "softball," admittedly but also to champion what he believes to be Bush's greatest accomplishment to date. "Lately, [the biggest misstep] is continuing not to come clean on this [Iraq] war, in terms of accountability, and in a way that would lead to an actual discussion or debate over what we need to do," he says. "[ABC News Chief White House Correspondent] Martha Raddatz asked the president, 'Since the violence is getting worse in certain areas, is it time for a new strategy?' and he said something about how 'the Pentagon is free to adjust their tactics.' Martha said, 'No, I meant strategy,' and he essentially said our strategy is to make sure the hopes and dreams of the Iraqi people are fulfilled. That isn't a strategy; it's a Hallmark card."
And what, in one of its biggest critic's opinion, should be the White House's proudest moment? Franken, who admits that he is leaving the door open to a possible 2008 Minnesota senate run, says, "The best thing this administration has done is actually spending money on the treatment of AIDS in Africa. We on the show have applauded the president for doing that."