November 7, 2015 -- People had never seen anything like this before: A couple of intellectual heavyweights going at it, hammer and tong, on national television. The hatred and tension was tangible between William F. Buckley, leading light of conservative thinking, and Gore Vidal, a flaming liberal. Throw in the Vietnam War, the battle between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention and the violence in the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and you've got the stuff of legend.
This documentary film uses footage from those televised debates as well as interviews with those who knew them, photos, archival film and the writings of these two men over their long careers to create a compelling drama about the long feud and the legendary televised clashes between these two men.
Back in 1968, people actually watched the national political conventions on television. NBC and CBS covered them gavel to gavel, and millions watched. Back then, there were differences of opinion, but the general public generally agreed on the basic facts. Now, you can find so-called news that gives you “facts” that fit your opinions. This documentary argues this sorry state of affairs all started with the Buckley-Vidal debates.
The American Broadcasting System, ABC, did not have the resources to cover the political conventions the way that NBC and CBS did, so the network did a greatly abbreviated coverage. They needed a gimmick to attract viewers and attention, so they hired Buckley and Vidal as commentators, paired with news anchor Howard K. Smith. Both Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review magazine and host of the “Firing Line” TV show, and Vidal, a best-selling author, loved the limelight, loved to be on TV and were they were both skilled debaters.
According to the documentary, Buckley underestimated Vidal at first. Vidal did his research and ambushed Buckley, making the debates a personal feud between the two men, who did not like each other to start with. The debates started with the Republican Convention in Florida, and grew increasingly heated through the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
The feud reached its climax when Vidal referred to Buckley as a “cypto-Nazi.” Buckley got very angry, rose and said, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your god damn face, and you'll stay plastered.” Vidal, an early defender of homosexuality, seemed unfazed, and perhaps even pleased that he had so shaken Buckley, causing him to lose his cool.
According to the documentary, Buckley never got over this incident. He could not seem to get past it in his own mind. The argument continued between the two men for years in essays, lawsuits and counter-suits. Years later, during an interview in which the video was played again, Buckley was visibly shaken and indicated he wished the video of him losing his temper had been destroyed. He did not want to see it again. The incident haunted him to the end.
The documentary follows these two men to their graves. It also examines their legacies. Vidal outlived Buckley, which gave him some satisfaction, but also lived to see his own popularity and influence decline as well. He hated Buckley right to the end of Buckley's life, and his own. Now that both men are dead, they will forever be tied together in history by these clashes, as much as they might hate the idea.
The film also explores the impact of those debates on televised news coverage, an impact that continues to this very day. Numerous broadcasts have tried to duplicate the fire of the Buckley-Vidal clashes. Buckley himself had a long and distinguished career on TV. His “Firing Line” show lasted 33 years on PBS. Although Buckley and Vidal represented the sharp divide in American politics of their day, the nation is now much more divided.
The difference is, political debate these days is far less eloquent and far less informed than it was back then, and the traditional gatekeepers of information have largely lost their power to keep the crazies from taking over. Now we have reality TV masquerading as news that caters to the crazies, and it all started with Buckley and Vidal. This film rates an A.
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