In 1968 the ABC network was struggling to compete with CBS and NBC. Known for poor quality programming and very low ratings, comedian Milton Berle quipped: “The way to end the Vietnam War is to schedule it on ABC. . . . It’ll be cancelled in 13 weeks”. To pull in viewers during the Republican/Democrat conventions of ’68, ABC hired the conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and pitted him against American writer and liberal Gore Vidal for ten nightly debates.
Buckley and Vidal shared many things in common but saw each other as a major threat to American society. Buckley saw Vidal as a promoter of degeneracy and Buckley to Vidal was repressed and undemocratic. They were both from prestigious families, attended boarding schools and were considered intellectual elites of their time but they couldn’t be more polar opposite.
Vidal is essentially in attack mode, he’s prepared and nails Buckley with acerbic insults. Every move is calculated, rehearsed and well researched by his assistants. Vidal’s attacks are ad hominem from the get go. Buckley takes insults well but when Vidal crosses the line and calls him a crypto-Nazi, Buckley can not contain his anger. This moment was incredibly hard to watch as Vidal is all about baiting Buckley and you can tell that Buckley is not a spiteful person, but after 8 debates of pretty much leftist-bullying tactics from Vidal it got to him. Vidal’s attacks are supposed to show Buckley for a bigot and racist, but watching it (admittedly selected clips not show in entirety) 48 years later after seeing the damage the left and social justice warriors cause and the censorship/authoritarianism they love, Vidal comes off like the original social justice warrior.
This may well be the event that help turn political discussion and news stories into the screaming matches and sport that it is today. Personally I find this aspect of political discussion tedious. I don’t want your humour or your smugness. I don’t care about the people, I want facts. But this event, much like modern day discussion on TV is all about the spectacle and not so much about the content.
The documentary isn’t about a political discourse here, it frames the debates around the Buckley/Vidal love/hate relationship. I was expecting to watch the full debates but the documentary is extremely entertaining. So instead of a political discourse you get clips of debates that are overshadowed by one-upmanship and come off like a therapy session gone crazy. They really needed two rubber baseball bats to hit each other with. Post-debates Vidal pretty much insinuates that Buckley is a closeted homosexual, but with the left outing people today it’s really no surprise that it would be fair game back then to accuse someone of being gay. I don’t exactly agree with Buckley’s politics but to me, in 2016, Vidal comes off very poorly and is all about freedom and liberties that only he approves of. Buckley doesn’t get much in word-wise which is disappointing from someone whose own magazine had an article called “How to Attack a Liberal”.
Not all 10 debates are present and they are not presented in their entirety, but the documentary builds tension between each debate with talking head interviews, archive footage and voice overs of comments Vidal and Buckley made about each-other. Interviewees include: sociologist Todd Gitlin, Christopher Hitchens, Vidal biographer Fred Kaplan and Buckley’s brother as well as many journalists, linguists, media commentators, news anchors and former network presidents etc. The documentary threads many aspects of American politics and cultural issues of the time and creates a documentary not only about two witty intellectuals, but the legacy and spectacle of that discourse and how it changed TV and political coverage.
A superb documentary that is gripping and will appeal to those who enjoyed Bobby Fisher Against the World as the two are essentially engaged in an intellectual chess match.