Film Review: Smiling Through the Apocalypse, Esquire in the 60s

This is an informative, good fun nonfiction film about the history of one of the 20th century USA’s most influential magazines, and one of those editors who has had a lasting impact on and made an indelible imprint upon American letters.  Esquire editor Harold Hayes was arguably to magazines what Maxwell Perkins was to novels, both having a literary flair in their respective mediums.  As paper publications struggle for survival in our new digital age and reality, and pixels challenge print, Smiling Through the Apocalypse, Esquire in the 60s is an interesting, thought provoking, nostalgic trip back to when the monthly magazine — despite their three often three month lead times — still made a difference in the culture.


Hayes, originally a Southerner, oversaw not only a stable of scribes who helped spawned the so-called “New Journalism,” but also a visually inventive team who conceptualized the magazine as being a visual art form combining punchy prose and pictorials.  Who can ever forget the cover image of Muhammad Ali during the height of his persecution for resisting the draft posing as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows?  Or the cover pic of Pop Artist Andy Warhol drowning in an open gigantic can of Campbell’s Soup?  The often mind blowing art captured the sixties’ psychedelic zeitgeist.

For a time, Esquire, along with Playboy (its editor/publisher Hugh Hefner also appears onscreen) defined the “hip” sensibility in the world of monthly magazine publishing.  (The doc also reminds us that prior to Hayes’ arrival, Esquire had published high caliber authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at one point had been a sort of soft porn “girlie”-type mag.)  In addition to including interviews with photographers, art designers and cartoonists such as Ed Sorel, Smiling features a movable feast of notable wordsmiths, making this a movie memory literary lane.  There are archival and original interviews with: Tom Wolfe; Nora Ephron; Peter Bogdanovich; Frank Rich; Harlan Ellison; and many other literary tigers (and a few pussycats).

Gay Talese drolly recounts writing the feature Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, which helped set the template for the more subjective, interpretive, long form New Journalism.  The Left’s éminence grise, Gore Vidal, recalls his epic epochal battle royales with rightwing idiot savant William F. Buckley.  Their televised tete-a-tete was spurred by the galvanizing violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which, BTW, Esquire counter-intuitively assigned Beat scribe William S. Burroughs and satirist Terry Southern to cover).  This journalist was aware of their war of words on live TV — with our man Gore calling Buckley “a crypto-Nazi” (although this reviewer fails to see what was so “crypto” about Buckley and his defense of the fascistic Czech-ago pig department during their “police riot” against unarmed peace demonstrators?) and the National Review editor calling Vidal’s alleged homosexuality out.  (Ironically, in onscreen interviews Vidal refers to Buckley as a “queen.”)  However, I did not know that this broadcast contretemps led to articles by each in Esquire, which in turn resulted in libel suits.  Of course, when Hayes requested fair play so that he could publish a rejoinder in National Review, true to form Buckley the reactionary refused turn-around-fair-play to Hayes, who had previously provided that to him.

This award winning documentary is directed and written by Hayes’ son, Tom Hayes, and his debut doc is something of a son’s attempt to come to grips with his complex, celebrity father and Harold’s legacy.  But this film is no mere hagiography — Hayes’ stumbles, as well as his triumphs, are covered.  For instance, lefty author Garry Wills tells the camera that he refused to write the lengthy feature that came to be known as The Confessions of Lt. Calley.  Wills protested against giving who he calls “a mass murderer” a prominent platform, and the dubious Hayes-directed cover stirred controversy not only among sponsors, but Esquire staffers, as well: The smiling ex-soldier convicted of mass killing at My Lai posing with somber Vietnamese children.  John Sacks, not Wills, wrote the article which was told from the point of view of the war criminal whose sentence was vastly reduced by President Richard “Crimes-Against-Humanity-Are-Us” Nixon.  Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” article pillorying conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein’s fundraising party for the Black Panther Party was also published under Hayes’ tutelage.

Smiling Through the Apocalypse, Esquire in the 60s will especially bring a smile to the faces of fans who enjoy(ed) the eponymous magazine; print journalism (New and old); graphic design; chronicles of the sizzling sixties; and lovers of the documentary art form.  Its star-studded cast of literati and “illustrati” (to coin a phrase) will make it irresistible to aficionados of that school of publishing. The editor/ writer and father/son relationships are also of interest.

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