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’s most influential magazines, and one of those editors who has made an indelible imprint on American letters. Esquire editor Harold Hayes was arguably to magazines what famous literary editor Maxwell Perkins (editor for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe) 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 often three-month lead times-still made a difference in the culture.

Originally a Southerner, Hayes oversaw not only a stable of scribes who helped spawn the unconventional “New Journalism,” but also an inventive team who conceptualized the magazine as being a visual art form combining punchy prose and pictorials, such as the cover image of Muhammad Ali during the height of his persecution for resisting the draft posing as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows; and the cover of Pop artist Andy Warhol drowning in a gigantic open can of Campbell’s soup. The often mind-blowing art captured the Sixties’ psychedelic zeitgeist. 

For a time, Esquire defined the “hip” sensibility in the world of monthly magazine publishing. In addition to including interviews with photographers, art designers and cartoonists such as Ed Sorel [critic of reactionary right-wing politics], 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, 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 battles with rightwing idiot savant William F. Buckley. Their televised tête-à-tête was spurred by the galvanizing violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which Esquire counter intuitively assigned Beat scribe William S. Burroughs and satirist Terry Southern to cover).

I was aware of their war of words on live TV-with our man Gore calling Buckley “a crypto-Nazi” (although I fail to see what was so “crypto” about Buckley and his defense of Chicago’s fascistic “police riot” against unarmed peace demonstrators) and the National Review editor calling Vidal’s homosexuality out. 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 Buckley’s magazine of conservative commentary, 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 début 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, 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 someone he calls “a mass murderer” a prominent platform.

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 Pres. Richard “Crimes-Against-Humanity-Are-Us” Nixon.

Tom 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 will especially bring a smile to the faces of fans who enjoy(ed) the 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 word) will make it irresistible to aficionados of that school of publishing. The editor/writer and father/son relationships are also of interest. Watch for national distribution.




Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.