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For two years filmmakers Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) turned their cinema verité cameras on the burgeoning political career of Al Franken, following the former Saturday Night Live comedian turned best-selling author from his highly publicized feud with Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly to his relentless campaign against George Bush's 2004 reelection. From Franken's USO tour in Iraq, to the studios of liberal radio network Air America and onto the campaign trail, the filmmakers profile one of the most effective political satirists of our time. Featuring beltway insiders Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Al Gore, Robert Kennedy Jr., Sean Hannity, William Safire, Karen Hughes and Henry Kissinger.
 

 The Newsweek Party

 

Entrée is everything in documentary filmmaking and often what makes for excitement is infiltrating the enemy camp. We had been shooting our Al Franken film for about a year and were at the Republican Convention in New York City. Al had just finished his afternoon Air America show and was looking for trouble. Ben Wikler, his producer, announced that they were going to a party at the Four Seasons Grill given by Lally Weymouth, the daughter of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and a senior editor at Newsweek. The word was Dick Cheney would be there as well as a lot of Republican bigwigs. Did we want to tag along?

At the door there was a table of gatekeepers with a guest list. Somehow we breezed by on the coattails of Al’s celebrity. Of course, Ben wasn’t on the list, nor were we, and 50 yards later we met up with a bouncer the size of two Al Frankens. He didn’t believe Al had been invited. “I’m on the list,” Al said with his best disarming smile. “No you’re not,” grinned back the bouncer. “Yes I am,” replied Al, still smiling, clutching his tie. This went back and forth until Al dared him to check with Lally Weymouth. “Yes he’s on the list,” she said with a cool smile. As a result of this distraction, we all slipped in.

The party was a mother lode of Republican celebrities. Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich, Alan Keyes, Bill Kristol, Republican convert Ron Silver, William Safire, Senators Ted Stevens, John Warner and Alan Simpson, to name a few. No Cheney, but that meant less security. This was not a media event and there were no television crews. Al had two overriding interests: free food and bumping heads. For all his notoriety, he seems to take almost no interest in generating press. He never interfered with our shooting, but also rarely looked out for our filmmaking interests. For us, the trick was to keep up.

The food wasn’t great so Al concentrated on finding targets. He spotted Alan Keyes, who is from Maryland and was running for the Senate seat in Illinois against Barack Obama. “I’m working on my impression of you,” Al said with the kind of outsized pride he takes in his own work. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Sure,” says Keyes.

“You said that Hillary Clinton was carpetbagging and no way would you do the same thing,” he started. Then, in an excited high-pitched rant, finger stabbing the air, Al became Keyes: “No I am not, and thank God I am not imitating her. I was called by the people of Illinois to stop the slaughter of unborn babies.”

“What do you think?” Al asked, no trace of irony, grinning like a boy who had just performed a magic trick.

“That’s pretty good,” Keyes said without enthusiasm. “Keep working on it.” He then back-stepped into another conversation.

Over the course of that evening, Al did his dead-on Kissinger impression to Henry Kissinger and attacked C. Boyden Gray, founder of the ultra right-wing Committee for Justice, for not picking up his dog’s poop. “You dick!” he shouted in the noisy room. “You asshole. You shouldn’t be allowed to have a dog.” One of Al’s peculiar talents is his ability to haul out insults with a smile on his face and not provoke a fist fight.

Later on, a young Newsweek editor came over to offer Al a T-shirt with a picture of Dick Cheney leading a goat with the face of President Bush over the caption “My Pet Goat.” Al was delighted. “You’re the best, man,” she said. “You made me laugh when I was really, really freaking out.”

As we were leaving, Al ran into Charlie Rose of The Charlie Rose Show. “Is this your own crew? Charlie asked.

“This is the Pennebakers, they did The War Room.” Al said.

“Is that right? What’s the storyline? Franken takes New York?”

“We don’t know yet,” Al said confidentially. “They’ve been following me so long that if nothing happens at the end, I’ve got to kill someone. It might be you, Charlie.”

“You mean you would reach across the table and strangle me?”

“Yes. Would that be a good ending? It’s like the Pennebakers say: ‘Al seemed so sane for a year, but we need an ending.’ So I tell them: ‘I’m on Charlie Rose tonight,’ and they say: ‘Kill Charlie, that’s a good ending’.”

Charlie Rose looked a little bewildered. “Good night, Charlie. I won’t kill you.”

“No? OK.”