Funny, insightful and wholly entertaining, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary on the series of Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley Jr. debates during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions is one of the documentaries of the year.
They came from similar backgrounds - Buckley a Yale alumnus, Vidal the grandson of a senator. Both were writers, highly intelligent, understood the power of TV, and how to use it to their advantage. But despite these similarities they were at the opposing ends of the ideological spectrum: Buckley a staunch conservative, Vidal the consummate liberal. Buckley arrived unprepared, fully believing that he could handle whatever Vidal threw at him. Vidal, however, even rehearsed adlibs, determined to expose Buckley as a racist.
The two debaters speak with a thinly-disguised loathing for each other. A polite hatred. Each one believing the other’s thinking to be dangerous for America. Buckley would only refer to his Vidal as "The author of Myra Brekinridge", a book he detested, while Vidal said of Buckley: "He’s always to the right and always in the wrong." The barbed comments and venomous asides would culminate in Buckley’s threat of violence live on air. "The network nearly shat," Dick Cavett states. TV political punditry would change forever.
In the background Gordon and Neville explore ABC’s coverage of the debate, which broke from the gavel-to-gavel treatment of its competitors, opting instead for recaps and debates. Seen as the poor man in the CBS-NBC-ABC trio - "They would have been fourth but there were only three" - ABC hoped that these debates would allow them to claw back some ratings. The talking heads here - including Christopher Hitchens - state that ABC’s coverage marked the end of objective TV news, ABC’s coverage was at the time ridiculed for abdicating journalistic responsibilities.
The directors effortlessly present the taut political atmosphere of the time, showing how the riots that coincided with the Democratic convention in Chicago filter through to the studio and further turn the heat up on Buckley and Vidal, and, just in case anyone gets bored with the series debates, branch out to include Buckley and Vidal’s backstories. Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow nicely provide the voices for Buckley and Vidal respectively when Morgan and Neville rely on letters and published works for more insight. The boxing analogy - complete with bell - is heavy-handed though.