Gratuitous Glorification: 'Radio' Review
Entering Sports Movie month, I didn’t expect my first film would treat sports as a supporting element instead of the center of the whole story. No, Radio is, for better or worse (in this case worse), a film less concerned with winning the state championship or “making it to the big leagues” than it is with lionizing the mentally disabled as so many films tend to do.
Set in the late ‘70s, Radio documents the “true-story” friendship between high-school football coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) and James Kennedy (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a mentally challenged loner nicknamed “Radio” for his vintage radio collection and love of music. Taking an interest in the young man, Coach Jones invites Radio to help him out with the football team and helps to assimilate him into the community that so vehemently shunned him for his differences, both mental and racial.
Though certainly flawed, Radio offers some excellent performances from Harris, Gooding, and from the supporting cast. Harris, no stranger to stand-in father figure roles, handles his sensitive portrayal of the empathetic Jones expertly. Gooding, on the other hand, delivers a conscientious, yet touching without being kitschy, portrayal of the endearing Radio. Radio’s mother (S. Epatha Merkerson), Principal Daniels (Alfre Woodard), and atypical villain Frank (Chris Mulkey) all offer up some quality screen time in a film where it’s not crucial to the overall success of the film but is a treat nonetheless.
The film being based on a true story and all, it’s difficult to call out flaws within the story or events as they appear onscreen. But the message Radio sends is something of a recurring one within Hollywood: any mentally disabled people represented on-screen must, in some way or another, enrich the lives of everyone else in the film and come to be wholeheartedly accepted by everyone who once ostracized them. Is it a bad message to send? No, not at all. Is it manipulative and just a tad presumptuous? Unequivocally.
Hollywood’s obsession with portraying the disabled as a sort of “fixer-upper” case or something to fill the void of another character’s emotional trauma is both disconcerting from an audience point of view and insulting to those who are disabled. Though the character of Radio may be thoughtfully portrayed by Gooding, the film’s intentions for him are nowhere near as sincere. The typical “Oscar-bait” predictability of the film betrays its plot early on and, as a result, whatever the film does with Radio feels disingenuous and insensitive. As with many “based on a true story” dramas, this film would have been better served by a dash of uncomfortable, yet still refreshing, honesty as a small-time indie flick rather than just another commercially sound, manufactured Hollywood picture.
A combination of the film’s predictability, overuse of typical genre cliches, and forgettable emotional impact ensures that Radio is most certainly not worth a watch. There are more socially aware and sincerely produced films about the mentally disabled out there and although Radio might have had the true story basis for an exceptional movie, it lost its real life luster when it was ground into the safe, marketable Hollywood package it is now.