In 1968, a desperate ABC network, unable to compete with the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democrat and Republican national conventions—and let us pause for a moment to consider how a network (back when there were only three networks dominating 90% of the American population) needed to beef up its political cred to increase its revenue—came up with an idea to have a conservative, William F. Buckley, and a degenerate, Gore Vidal, act as proxies for the Rs and the Ds respectively.
Seriously, I was pleased that the documentary identified Vidal as a liberal. But, really, he was a degenerate. He may or may not have said that you should never say "No" to only two things, sex and appearing on television, but the movie makes clear that his goal in going on TV was not to debate the issues, but to destroy Buckley personally.
Which got boffo ratings and destroyed TV debate forever—and if we're being honest, didn't do any favors for debate in general. Vidal, of course, wasn't the only one to do this—it is a hallmark of the Left, at least since Marx, if not going back to the French Revolution.
Never once does the documentary suggest that there's anything wrong with this. In fact, I'm sort of guessing that the makers of this film figure that Vidal was right to do so, and his gotcha moment against Buckley vindicated his tactics. To me, it looked like the moment damaged both of them.
But, hey, what do I know? It's not nice to call someone a "queer"—and they had John McWhorter to tell us how, in modern times, that might even be considered "hate speech"—but I'm not sure why it's less hateful to call a former WWII infantryman a "crypto Nazi".
That's as bizarre to me as the tendency of the Left—on extreme display here—to demonize their opponents by smearing them as closeted homosexuals.
Anyway, it's entertaining, though there are four topics here, and they're all given rather short-shrift: The character of political debate in our society, the changing role of television and television news, the actual debates, and the impact of the debates on two men. On the three point documentary scale:
1. Topic. Reasonably important and certainly interesting, I think the movie might have been better served if they'd kept it entirely personal, though that might have been difficult to pull off.
2. Presentation. The movie is competent, technically, but The Boy thought that the supporting talking heads didn't really add anything—i.e., that they were all fluff. I mention this because The Boy didn't know any of them or their political leanings.
3. Bias. This is is the sort of film that the Left says is unbiased and the Right says, "you say it's unbiased because, like a fish swimming in water: that bias surrounds you at all times, so you don't see it."
Am I exaggerating? Well, I'll give the film some credit: When Vidal caricatured Buckley on the Jack Paar show (with Paar mugging along), they allowed that Buckley disarmed Paar by going on his show and not being the ridiculous joke that Gore made him out to be (echoed in our modern, feeble fashion with Jon Stewart's lazy failure to nail John Yoo.) But it never points out the degeneracy and destructiveness of this whole "Left creates a caricature of Right and claims victory when it can plant that caricature in people's mind, true or not."
You could argue that it wasn't the film's job to point that out, that it should be left to the good wit of the audience, except that the only conservative voice they could find was Buckley's brother, and he's bought into the notion of America as an Empire—straight out of Noam Chomsky, whom they also had on to opine.
Who else did they have? Brooke "liberals in the media are TOO fair" Gladstone of NPR; Ginia "TV's gotten so conservative since the '70s!" Bellafante of the New York Times; Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote "The Death of Conservatism" and refers to conservatism as an "insurgency", and whose understanding of conservatism is so profound, he regards George W Bush as an extreme conservative ideologue; Dick "Sure, why not?" Cavett; Andrew "That's Not Palin's Baby" Sullivan; Frank "Dan Rather did nothing Wrong" Rich; Todd "President of Students for a Democratic Society" Gitlin; and on and on.
The late, lamented Chris Hitchens is here, with little to say, except "Yes, they hated each other for real." While he has a soft place in a lot of right wingers' hearts, he was a liberal who simply recognized the threat of Islam.
They had on Buckley's caretaker, I think she was.
You know who they didn't have on? A single person from National Review, the magazine Buckley founded. Buckley takes exception early on—foreshadowing!—to Gore and the Left's (ultimately successful) attempt to make National Socialism into a right wing phenomenon. These guys couldn't be bothered to have on, say, Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, to give a rebuttal.
Swimming in it. They spend time on the grotesque flop that was Myra Breckinridge and the presumably less grotesque but even more forgotten The Best Man. We learn about Vidal's history as an author, beginning with Williwaw, through his '80s books on American History. It spends no time at all on God and Man At Yale, and little on any of Buckley's '60s books.
Swimming. In. It. The only narrative about Vietnam is the media created one about America having lost in Vietnam, and the only greater tragedy being that it might have won.
I have mentioned it was an enjoyable film, right? It was. If you don't agree with the Conventional Wisdom, you are used, I'm sure, to seeing the bias, so this stuff doesn't bother you so much as it is just business-as-usual.
I haven't seen Robert Gordon's previous work, but Morgan Neville won for the entertaining (if overrated) 20 Feet From Stardom which also suffered from the desire to create a narrative the audience is already well familiar with.
So, yeah. Gird your loins, because this is one of those movies that needs a rebuttal, but go ahead and see it anyway.
(See, even as I publish this, I keep thinking of rebuttals. Vidal attacks Buckley on the topic of, yes, income inequality, which has resurfaced yet again in the past years. Buckley notes that Vidal is a great beneficiary of income inequality, which they-who-make-the-argument always seem to be, don't they?)