Review:  ‘Smiling Through the Apocalypse’ takes on an Esquire legend

A scene from ‘Smiling Through the Apocalypse’
Harold Hayes behind his desk in the Esquire offices, as seen in “Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s.”
(First Run Features)

The writerly pyrotechnics of the New Journalism had a major forum at Esquire, and Harold Hayes, the magazine’s editor from 1963 to 1973, was the man igniting the fireworks.

He shepherded rising talents who included Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Peter Bogdanovich and Gore Vidal, all of whom provide vivid recollections of those charmed years in “Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s,” a documentary portrait by Tom Hayes, Harold’s son.

Fascinating anecdotes unfold, illuminating the spontaneity and daring that went into producing the groundbreaking periodical, from its sometimes-incendiary covers to its deep-dive explorations of the zeitgeist. Hayes not only curated a stable of dazzling young reporters but also gave bylines to established literary giants, among them Dorothy Parker and W.H. Auden. A strong sense of his genius and leadership style emerges, down to the sound of the taps on his shoes as he approached an employee’s desk.

At the same time, the film is a son’s remembrance, and director Hayes hasn’t integrated the two threads into a cohesive thesis. His uninspired voice-over narration eulogizes “Dad,” calls Esquire the older brother he never had, and draws such unhelpful connections as pointing out that soon after Harold was named managing editor, “I turn 4.”


His father, no doubt, would have sent the loosely organized feature back for rewrites. Or perhaps he would have done the line-edit himself; as the late Ephron recalls with deep admiration, Hayes was as gifted with editorial details as he was visionary.


“Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s”

MPAA rating: None


Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.

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