According to Diana Vreeland, two things shaped global culture after World War II: the atomic bomb and the bikini. Fair enough.
By the time we hear this half-ironic utterance — captured in the brisk, bubbly Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel — the documentary's title figure has also recalled her glimpse of Hitler in prewar Europe. The dictator's absurd mustache tipped her off: The man had no style. (In the images chosen by producer-director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the man's broomy little 'stache really does look jarringly rude.)
And style is everything, instructs Vreeland, who made her name as fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar before ascending to icon status as the editor of Vogue from 1963 to '71. There may be more transparent lenses than personal style through which to view history, but The Eye Has to Travel makes a sharp case that few people enjoyed a clearer understanding of the 20th century than Vreeland. She was a magazine Gatsby, a doyenne not so much of fashion (something she claims, in this movie's deep collage of voice-overs and reconstructions and archival footage, to have deplored) but of self-invention, that talent most crucial to the previous century's success stories. She could tell a real fake from a fake fake and find amusement in either — along with marvelous depth, of course, in authentic beauty.
Immordino Vreeland is married to one of Vreeland's grandsons but never met Diana, who died in 1989. There's no insider quite so outside as an in-law, and Immordino Vreeland's movie astutely balances Wikipedia plain-factness (illustrated by brilliantly arrayed old interviews and well-composed new ones) with careful on-camera sessions with Diana Vreeland's two sons. The family story is one of limited or failed parenting, dating back at least to Diana's own mother (who called her daughter "extremely ugly"), but it's told here in tones of fascination, not pain. A movie in which Manolo Blahnik weighs in doesn't, after all, have time to bleed.
If you're nursing a Mad Men-induced longing for midcentury, moneyed America, prepare to weep openly at this film — and then wonder, as you look at the next day's headlines, just what Diana Vreeland would say about the world today.