DIRECTOR(S): Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
87 min | Documentary, History, News | 7 June 2015 (UK- Sheffield Doc Fest UK premiere)
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary takes a look back at the 1968 ABC Network TV debates between the two great public intellectuals of the US commentariat scene: the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. In a bold, and it is fair to say ratings-grabbing move, the ABC network (always the runner up in the ratings battles) decided to grab these two well-known intellectual foes and tie them into a series of ten debates framed against the backdrop of both the Republican and Democratic conventions, in the run up to the turbulent 1968 presidential election. Gordon and Neville use the footage of the debates, archive material, and recent interviews with figures like Christopher Hitchens, to not only explore the faultiness opening up in US society as represented in the opposing figures of Buckley and Gore, but they attempt to trace how the debates confirmed the power of television in the changing media landscape, and in political debate. The film therefore has lofty ambitions (and probably too many of them), but what it is most successful in doing is giving us an entertaining portrait of the two idiosyncratic and flamboyant central figures.
Gordon and Neville do well in quickly setting up the wider context for us, through talking heads and footage.This is a startling reminder of how this was a highly charged time in US politics, to many it must have seemed as if the country was splitting apart at the seams. The country was battered by the currents of feminism, black power movements, protests against the war in Vietnam, the death of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, riots across cities. This turbulence actually spilled out into the conventions themselves, as some shocking archive news footage shows, and the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago went down in history as one of the worst examples of police-protester clashes in the modern US. Gordon and Neville craft a narrative from their material that, though it doesn’t put Buckley and Gore at the head of these forces, suggests that they in many ways embodied the new divide that these currents were flowing around: this was the beginning of the US culture wars and the hardening of the electorate into different camps. When Buckley and Vidal went up against each other, one interviewee comments, it was to battle each other over who was living the right way, as opposed to debating actual policy positions.
And when it came to the issue of how they lived, ABC knew they had a firecracker of a pair up on the hands. Vidal and Buckley might have been designed in a lab to antagonise each other. Vidal was a famous writer and social commentator who’s 1948 book The City and the Pillar was strikingly bold in its use of a homosexual perspective, and his more recent novel Myra Breckinridge, adapted to film, was also making similar waves in the way it satirised the US establishment and social mores. Vidal seemed to find brevity congenitally impossible, preferring to condescendingly hammer down his debate opponents with long, languid soliloquies bemoaning their own small minds, before raging on at how the US had warped itself into an empire state that had betrayed all its principles, if it ever had any. Buckley did much the same thing, but from the opposite side of the fence, playing a major role in directing the Republican party to a law and order, family values, culture war strategy. Buckley thought Vidal was a degenerate, and his inability to hold in his disgust during the debates (and we get to see the cringe-inducing moment in the debated where his self-control slips) led to years of humiliation and self-torment.
The film is maybe at its most interesting when it not only paints this lively portrait of these two contrasting figures, but also observes how strangely similar Vidal and Buckley were, for all their hatred of each other. They were both from what we could call the ‘patrician’ class, it was unmistakable from the way they dressed, and spoke. Both had had elite upbringings: literature, horse riding, holidays in the Hamptons, and had developed tastes for the finer things in life. They were politically connected and yearned to be real power players; Vidal in fact was related to the Kennedy family by blood, and even made a run for Congress himself, while Buckley had a failed shot at running for New York City mayor. Both held grudges so long they could have won world records, and the debate in no way offered any closure for either. In short, neither was much like the majority of Americans who they claimed to represent, but the film makes the intriguing observation this was a time when ‘east coast intellectuals’ were not yet considered ballot box poison. Vidal and Buckley were already celebrity figures well aware of the power of TV before they signed up to the ABC debates. It is hard to picture the ‘aww shucks” approach of George W. Bush gelling with the effete, snobbish mannerisms of Buckley in the 21st century’s anti-intellectual Republican party.
When it comes to analysing how the clash between the two defined the modern era of public discourse in the media - an era, one commentator notes, where we no longer have centralising news networks but instead sit in our own safe media bubbles - the film is less successful, as you would need a film much longer and deeper than this to make such a complex argument. There simply isn't space in this film to sweep over two such giant personalities like Vidal and Buckley (you could easily have run out of time just making the film about one of them), and also analyse not only the US culture wars of the mid 20th century but also the changes in the media across the following five decades simultaneously. The film takes a lot on, but its better at simply painting a picture of two very aggressive, arrogant and iconoclastic figures, and conveying a sense of ambiguity about the effects of trying to reduce a national political debate to a clash between two shouting figureheads.