Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

2015, R, 87 min. Directed by Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 21, 2015

In 1968, there were only three television networks, and gavel-to-gavel coverage of the quadrennial conventions held by the Republican and Democratic political parties to elect their presidential candidates was the norm. ABC, perennially in third place, had more abbreviated coverage, and came up with a hopeful idea for a ratings booster: daily debates between two of the country’s most recognizable public intellectuals, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

Buckley, the founder of National Review and host of PBS’ Firing Line, was the country’s most prominent conservative thinker. Vidal was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and voice of the political left, whose satirical novel Myra Breckinridge, which ripped America’s sexual and social mores, had just come out in 1968. The two men shared a long-festering loathing for each other that had begun long before these televised debates, but were underscored for history as a result of them. As Christopher Hitchens remarks in Best of Enemies, “There was nothing feigned about their mutual antipathy.” Moreover, each man thought the other to be the embodiment of dangerous ideas. These sensibilities only became more pronounced as the historic demonstrations and riots that took place on the streets outside the convention halls in ’68 brought the country’s political divisions into sharp focus. Hawks and doves, establishment and counterculture – it was a time for taking sides, and the debates offered some of the best political theatre around.

Oddly, the filmmakers who’ve assembled this political history are best known as music documentarians: Neville is the director of the Oscar-winning film Twenty Feet From Stardom, and Gordon is the author and director of numerous music biographies and cultural studies, many of them focused on the artists of Memphis and elsewhere in the South. Yet maybe it took these two men knowledgeable about the art of performance to coax from the Buckley/Vidal debates perspectives that have not been widely put forth previously. These debates were great live television and a harbinger of the split-screen talking heads who argue both sides of an issue, which has become the modern-day standard for TV news analysis. The debates created a watershed moment for television news (and ABC). Despite their mutual hatred, a symbiotic relationship was cemented between Buckley and Vidal, both of whom possessed an innate expertise for using television to their advantage.

Most histories of these debates center on the famous exchange in which Buckley loses his cool after being called a “crypto Nazi” by Vidal one too many times. On live television, Buckley unleashed a gay epithet and threatened to “sock [Vidal] in the goddamn face,” an exchange that led to later magazine articles, as well as lawsuits and countersuits by the two men. The details of what went down are fascinating, but the ultimate focus of Best of Enemies is television and this demonstration that it can be both eminently viewable and illuminating.

See “Fight of the Century,” Aug. 21, for an interview with co-director Robert Gordon.

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Best of Enemies, Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

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