Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
USA, 2015. Media Ranch, Motto Pictures, Tremolo Productions. Screenplay by Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville. Cinematography by David Leonard, Mark Schwartzbard, Graham Willoughby. Produced by Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville. Music by Jonathan Kirkscey. Production Design by Scott Grossman. Film Editing by Eileen Meyer, Aaron Wickenden.
Political campaigns have become a fully televised experience by the time of the 1968 American presidential elections, with NBC and CBS the most powerful networks providing full coverage, while ABC lags behind in third place for power on the air. Unable to provide the kind of comprehensive detail that its bigger siblings are giving the nation, ABC decides to get creative and instead spices up their coverage with talking heads, putting together ten debates at the Republican and Democratic conventions between ultra-conservative political commentator William F. Buckley and unabashedly liberal author Gore Vidal.
The two men, whose distaste for each other is genuine and well precedes the event, show up with their tongues sharpened and dipped in poison, and the footage of their on-air banter (which frequently abandons the issues of the current election and gets personal) is as lively for its witty barbs as its direct attacks. With both of them reeking of upper crustiness, speaking with the elongated vowels associated with eastern intellectual privilege, this venture should be rejected by the rest of America, but despite their rarefied airs, Buckley is a strident pursuer of the limelight and Vidal fiercely funny for the way he pulls no punches. The debates turn out to be television gold that is embraced by the public and changes the nature of election coverage forever.
Between views of these bouts we are treated to richly assembled biographies of the two men that give terrific context to the main event, where classy argument eventually escalates to an explosion that sees one man lose his temper and go too far, an event that affected them both for the rest of their lives. The rich display of footage and inclusion of very helpful talking heads accentuate a full glimpse into a world that no longer exists: this is about two people whose equilibrium is rocked by one of them letting it get personal just once, which in the current climate of Anne Coulter unintelligently calling everyone names makes it feel like it takes place on another planet.
Some aspects of speculation reek of inventive editorializing (did Vidal really enjoy outliving Buckley, or is that something that suits the specific narrative of this film), but either way it’s fascinating every single second that it lasts.