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'Left of the Dial' documentary takes the wrong direction

Midway through ''Left of the Dial," an HBO documentary about the birth of Air America, Michael Moore is veering through the radio network's New York offices. Having just appeared on Al Franken's first afternoon show, the great Hollywood bomb-thrower runs into Air America's then-CEO, Mark Walsh. Without missing a beat, Moore openly snubs Walsh for his public comments about the network's philosophy. As Moore later explains to the camera, ''[Walsh] says, 'We can't go too far, we gotta play it safe.' Playing it safe is what got us into this mess."

And playing it safe is what makes ''Left of the Dial," which premieres tonight at 8, a disappointment. The documentary, part of HBO's ''America Undercover" series, is a soft look back at the start of Air America on the occasion of its first birthday. It's not an infomercial, but it has that little-engine-that-could feel that isn't as interesting and real as it is sweet. The creation of a liberal network, built to challenge incendiary conservative talk on its own terms, is a fascinating story that should be filled with unexpected hot moments such as Moore's knock. Instead, ''Left of the Dial" plays out like a business tale whose happy ending is a foregone conclusion despite tribulations along the way.

The problem is that filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan decided to focus on Air America as a corporate entity rather than as a national phenomenon. While they were documenting the rise of Air America last year, they found themselves in the middle of a financial story involving the backers, bounced checks, and the possible demise of the network only weeks after it began. We see the stunned Air America staffers, still waiting for paychecks and health insurance, reacting to the news, and we see regimes change.

At the time, it was a scandal that led to lots of late-night interoffice histrionics, just as it fed the contempt of conservative talk hosts. But at this distance, now that Air America has snagged about 50 affiliates across the country, it all seems irrelevant. Like so many media brouhahas, it's ultimately of interest only to those who went through it.

''Left of the Dial" does include sequences that gesture toward larger political-media issues, in addition to the Moore incident. And most of them involve the on-air talent, rather than the men in suits. Any footage featuring microphone powerhouse Randi Rhodes is compelling, since, like so many talk hosts, she wears her feelings on her sleeve. During a charged on-air phone interview, her anger drives Ralph Nader to hang up on her. She embodies the gloves-off spirit usually identified with conservative hosts, a spirit many have long assumed would offend the sensibilities of liberal listeners.

And ''Morning Sedition" host Marc Maron also has a few resonant scenes, as he stresses over making the segue from stand-up comedy to radio. His shift in modes represents the same shift Air America's been trying to bring about in American liberals. Can they use their anger to persuade and fight back? Or are they doomed to retreat into punch lines?

As a business portrait, ''Left of the Dial" is premature. As a cultural investigation, it's unrealized. And as a financial thriller, it's just a lot of white noise.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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