They’re not as well remembered or as gloweringly dramatic as the Frost-Nixon interviews. But the series of televised debates between liberal lion Gore Vidal and conservative mouthpiece William F Buckley during the 1968 US party conference season have arguably had the greater cultural impact, paving the way for a whole generation of finger-pointing, firebrand punditry.
This fascinating, supremely well-judged and unexpectedly touching documentary explores the debates and their aftermath through historical footage and a selection of informed talking heads. There are no heroes or villains here: both men were demons and angels in their own unique ways. Vidal may have been the forward-looking free thinker, concerned with the rights of America’s minorities and committed to the cause of justice, but his fusty, elitist manner and self-satisfied smirk are hard to warm to. Buckley, meanwhile, was a committed right-winger, spitefully anti-democratic, but his brisk charm and barely concealed personal insecurities are awkwardly appealing.
Focusing on the personalities rather than the historical context, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville illustrate how both men’s lives were changed by the debates, and how neither could let it go even decades later. The result is perhaps better suited to TV than the big screen, but it’s a timely, thoughtful piece of work.