Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 28 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 5; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating: (1-5): 4
Do not rejoice when your enemy meets trouble. Let there be no gladness when he falls— for the Lord may be displeased with you and stop punishing him!
We could say that this fascinating documentary about the ten televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968 marks the beginning of Fox News and MSNBC, though its co-writers and co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon do not make this claim. However, just as the year in which they took place was a pivotal year in American society, so were the debates in the way that they brought in opinion, passionately held, to mix in with the news coverage of politics.
The year was an incredible year, filled with dark, tragic news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the destructive riots that blighted so many cities, including the capital Washington DC; the escalation of the Vietnam War and the increasingly violent anti-war demonstrations and acts of sabotage—and, most pertinent to this film, the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic Parties. CBS and NBC planned to cover the entire conventions, but the weaker (in ratings and thus in revenue) ABC decided to cover just an hour and a half of the proceedings, supplemented by commentary and debate from William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. This latter move was made out of desperation, ABC then running a distant third behind CBS and NBC. The decision turned out to be a good one, the two commentators providing lively political theater as they attacked each other mercilessly.
Both men were influential among their followers, also erudite patricians in their manners and speech. Buckley during his college years felt like an outsider at Yale, a WASP bastion, because he was a Catholic. Vidal grew up wealthy, his grandfather a U.S. senator, but he did not go to college. Both men were veterans, authors of fiction and nonfiction. Each of them ran for public office but lost. In 1968, Buckley was famous as founder and the editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine National Review. He hosted the political PBS talk show Firing Line. It was also in 1968 that Vidal’s novel that broke gender taboos, Myra Breckinridge, became a best-seller, eventually being adapted for the big screen. This was a book that Buckley hated as much as he did its author.
The filmmakers do a good job showing through vintage footage the context of the debates—the assassinations of King and Kennedy and resulting demonstrations and riots, the police-state that Mayor Daly had changed Chicago into to protect the hall where the Democratic delegates were convening, and more. (Part of this “more” are shots of Vidal with Paul Newman and Arthur Millerwho had come to the Chicago convention.)
The debates in the studio were almost as lively as the demonstrations in Chicago, each attacking each other more ferociously as the weeks wore on. Judging by the portions that we are shown more time and energy was spent in attacking each other than in discussing the speeches on the floor of the two conventions. It was the 9th debate that has become infamous, Buckley becoming so worked up by Vidal’s calling him a a “pro- or crypto-Nazi” that he lashed back, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Although Buckley apologized later for the “queer” remark, he and Vidal continued to deride each other in subsequent articles.
ABC reaped great ratings, something that all of the networks noted. They continued to champion neutral or objective reporting, but the advocacy kind of commentary increased, until today we have two cable networks, Fox and MSNBC devoted almost exclusively to programs hosted by men and women whose opinions figure in as important as the news of politicians they report on.
This review with a set of questions is in the Nov. 2015 Visual Parables.