Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville.
Featuring: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jnr. USA 2015. 88 mins.
Stick around for the end credits of Best Of Enemies: the epilogue reveals the real crux of this well-researched and entertaining documentary about two American intellectual heavyweights, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jnr.
Best Of Enemies chronicles the live television debates on the ABC network during the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jnr – two successful, well-known intellectuals and writers whose respective beliefs and ideals were poles apart – were hired to take part in nightly debates covering the events, Vidal in favour of the Democrats, Buckley in favour of the Republicans. Today the idea of having pundits appear on television to discuss opposing ideas is so commonplace that it has become a TV entertainment subgenre in its own right. But in the late 1960s, as the opening part of this film shows, the fledgling ABC network was taking a gamble on the formula in a last-ditch attempt to gain ratings over its more established rivals. The gamble certainly paid off.
What follows is a riveting montage of archive footage from the debates themselves, newsreels from the period, some great insights from a myriad of talking heads, and excerpts from the writings of Buckley and Vidal, read by the well-cast Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow respectively.
What becomes apparent is that the two men, although political and moral opposites, were also intrinsically similar. Both were masters of the written word and live debate; both were from privileged backgrounds; and both were convinced that the other was not only wrong, but even a danger to their country.
To its credit, Best Of Enemies does not try to demonise either Vidal or Buckley, even though that might have been an easy avenue for the film to take. Instead it reveals that these smart, loquacious men inadvertently paved the way towards the morose bickering that has become standard on TV news today. Best Of Enemies closes with a brief clip from 2004 of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire, a show that pit liberal pundits against conservatives: Stewart pleads with them to stop their nonsensical chatter, effectively calling bullsh*t on the formula. As a result of his appearance, Crossfire was later cancelled.
In the end, the legacy of these champions of debate was to create a network television monster. The news is never enough, and is always trumped by loudly opposing opinions arguing amongst themselves in an attempt to gain ratings. It would seem that in the nearly 50 years that have passed, whatever wise, eloquent or provocative ideas Buckley or Vidal may have had, they all got lost in the theatre of noise.
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