Directors: Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
From the team behind the Academy Award winning documentary 50 Feet from Stardom comes a completely different kind of film, both in topic and in execution, but no less successful. It can be dangerous to construct a documentary using almost solely archival footage, as it can detract from the artistry of the project and become merely a collage of videoclips, barely connected and/or clumsily arranged. Fortunately, the directing duo behind this documentary knows what it is doing.
During the presidential election campaigns and leading into the conventions which would ultimately decide the official party candidates in 1968, ABC was trailing NBC and CBS, the only other networks on television at the time, and ABC was losing the ratings war by a significant margin. In order to compete against the two other networks the struggling station came up with an idea to have two men debate on live television, each one representing an extreme of the political spectrum.
The choices of pundits were William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a noted conservative television personality, magazine editor, and expert debater, and Gore Vidal, the liberal novelist and homosexual. Vidal and his works have not aged very well and his memory and impact have faded over the course of the years, but at the end of the 60s his star power was at an all time high, along with the controversial nature of his ideas and the contents of his novels, like Myra Breckinridge.
The two men intensely disliked each other prior to the ten debates that would become talking points around the nation, but once the debates began the dislike turned into pure hatred, vitriol as venomous as a snake’s poisoning each of their exchanges. Watching these two highly intelligent men go back and forth is a fascinating look at what, in retrospect, jump-started the current way news and media operates, with back and forth yelling and name-calling, only a lot less informed by much less intelligent people.
The exchanges haunted both men for many years and were sources of intense soul searching. Whenever readings of either man are used in the film they are voiced by well known actors: John Lithgow in the case of Vidal, Kelsey Grammer, one of the better known Republican celebrities, subbing in for Buckley. A few interviews break up the footage of the debates, which provides much needed respites. The documentary took years to produce and finance, which explains the inclusion of Christopher Hitchens being in the film, in spite of his very sad death a few years ago.
In a way we can blame what we see on the Fox News Network, The View, and a myriad of other outlets, on this series of debates which took the nation by storm and captured everyone’s attention during the course of those weeks of 1968. For better or for worse we have Vidal and Buckley to thank for the way the current talking heads operate. And let’s face it, it’s probably for the worse.