Produced and Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Featuring: William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal
Review Date: August 12, 2015
Although it is hard to imagine today, there really was a time in the modern era when public intellectual giants bestrode the Earth. And from the mid-1950s through to the end of the 70s, two of the most renown of these collusii were William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. Emerging from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum – – the first conservative, the latter progressive, these towering figures with their writings, speeches, pronouncements and television appearances were the the stuff of endless public scrutiny and fascination. Buckley, an overachieving prodigy, practically carved the conservative movement out of whole cloth; he was the founder of National Review, an essayist extraordinaire, a television host, author of countless books on politics, art and culture, avid sailor and a concert harpischordist. Vidal, a polymath and a hedonistic aesthete, was the author of such groundbreaking novels as The City and the Pillar(1948) and Myra Breckenridge (1968) and a historical revisionist of the first order. They were born within months of one another; were almost the same height and spoke with the same honeyed, mellifluous accents of the East Coast patrician class.
So it was not so astounding that ABC, then limping well behind NBC and CBS in national viewership decided, before the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 1968, to enlist both men as commentators on the proceedings. The antipathy between the two was well known, as was the divergence of views in politics, culture and art. Fireworks were certainly expected, but nothing on the level of what eventuated.
This documentary captures the two men in all their scintillating, intellectual prime using the actual archival footage of the time to portray not just two men at diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum, but two cultures and ideas of America in direct collision. Here we can look into the first shots fired in America’s cultural civil war – a war that rages on unabated today, with the the Vidal wing having gained the upper hand.
Much about the debate would presage the way the two camps would face off in the future. The film makers go to great pains to reveal how Vidal had no real intention of fulfilling his role as commentator on the Conventions but from the beginning sought to provoke Buckley into revealing what he considered his ‘unbridled hypocrisy’. The ad hominem attack strategy worked well for Vidal and he used it as bait to lure Buckley into a trap into which he fell helplessly in the ninth debate. During the raucous and violent Democratic Convention of August that year, Vidal in an off hand comment, referred to his co-commentator as a crypto-Nazi; Buckley, the veins in his neck bulging, leaned close to Vidal and declaimed:
“Now stop calling me a crypto- Nazi, you queer, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you will stay plastered.”
The outburst was entirely out of character for the unflappable Buckley who had learned to bear the lances of liberals for decades with considerable pluck and was one of the country’s finest debaters.
The host quickly cut to a break and Buckley stormed off. But the incident was to take on a life of its own, leading to years of litigation between the two men and unending public squabbles in the national press.
Clearly the documentary, which is even handed in its review of the life and work of the two men, attempts to portray an America at the crossroads, using the voices of two of its great antagonists as a barometer.
Yet even more exquisitely it seeks to investigate the impact of the debates and the notorious outburst on the lives and consciousnesses of the two men themselves. A telling interview of Buckley by Ted Koppel in 1994 is presented in which Buckley, now aged and frail, is shown the infamous clip once again. His response is an uncomfortable silence and it is clear that he views the event with deep regret, one of the few missteps in an otherwise brilliantly calibrated public career.
Vidal, on the other hand, is shown at his mansion on the Amalfi coast in Italy, a house built on a precipice, which gives him the perfect vantage, he says, to witness “the collapse of western civilization.” Now aged and frail himself, his books out of print and his silver tongued voice no longer in demand in the public square, he bears his own regrets, and although the photos on his wall of the two men in 1968 are presented as a form of trophy, as if he won the scalp of the firebrand conservative, there is a sadness in his voice – perhaps revealing that the events of so long ago had left him with a bitterness he had not yet expunged.
All of us have moments in our lives that we regret – that we long to go back to and make right. Some of those incidents and events lie buried for decades but occasionally flare up to haunt us. Buckley and Vidal were no different in this regard and despite their tremendous public careers and famously impregnable intellects, remained sensitive men to the end. The true beauty of this film is in its revelation of this simple truth – that they were gargantuan forces to be reckoned with, no doubt, but in reality mere mortals bearing their humanity with all the angst, pride, ego and sadness of us all.
Avi Davis is the President and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.