'Best of Enemies'
Anyone who has ever angrily turned off a news network because they couldn’t stand the bipartisan bickering can now turn to ‘Best of Enemies’ for the origin story of that ugly trend. In theory, a documentary about a single network’s debate coverage of the 1968 political conventions shouldn’t be too exciting, but Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s riveting new film proves the contrary. It’s an intriguing, balanced and expertly made depiction of an important tipping point in contemporary journalism well worth seeking out, even by viewers who have never heard of Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley.
The great debate arrived because ABC News was desperate for anything that could get the network attention (particularly after a cheap newsroom collapse live on air). Since they didn’t have the recognizable anchors or access to compete with other networks, they decided to stage their own debate around the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. The debate wouldn’t be between any politicians, but between two very popular and politicized TV personalities. Pretty standard stuff now, but at the time it was fresh and became an event, especially after a pretty nasty climax.
In the left corner of the ring was Gore Vidal, an author and essayist whose work and life were dedicated to pursuing progressive politics. In the right corner was William F. Buckley, a proto Tea Party man of the hard Right who specialized in wittily running verbal circles around his political opponents. Both were highly educated, erudite and eloquent men who absolutely despised each other. The verbal sparring match was arranged because everyone knew fireworks would fly, and indeed they did as planned. Their first few matches were fierce, yet professional. They were entertaining to watch simply because the two men were witty and amusing in their bile flinging. Then the final debate reared its ugly head and it’s clear why this is such an infamous moment in television history.
With both men pushed to their irritated limits, they devolved into childish name-calling. Vidal fired first, calling Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi.” The typically unflappable Buckley then shot back, calling the closeted (well, at least publicly) Vidal a “queer” and threatening to sock him in the goddamn face. Vidal slyly smiled knowing he’d won an image war. Buckley immediately looked ashamed, the host hastily cut to commercial, and TV was never the same. Not only did the highly rated event create an industry out of bipartisan feuding, the two men involved never got over it. Buckley clearly regretted his lapse in decorum for the rest of his days, while Vidal apparently watched the tapes endlessly like some sort of political pundit remake of ‘Sunset Boulevard’.
Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville wisely dole out their story gradually and with an impressively even-minded approach to both men. Using a flurry of archival footage, talking head interviews with experts, and private writings from Vidal and Buckley (amusingly voiced by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow), the filmmakers deepen their profiles of both men in between each episode of the depate. Neither is presented as hero or saint, even though the final slur Buckley tosses out clearly sets him up as the villain. (If anything, he comes off as a tragically empathetic character.) Gordon and Neville expertly edit their material together so that it spills out with great dramatic tension and humor. This could have been dry, yet they make the debates and profiles all feel exciting and important.
Like it or not, this slice of TV history had irreversible impact, which the filmmakers make abundantly clear. The final note they leave for the audience is sour, running loops of news coverage bickering on top of each other until it devolves into white noise. Clearly this was the beginning of something bad, yet there’s no denying how fascinating it is to see it play out and learn about the different lives behind the first two intellectuals to have a hissy fit on live television. ‘Best of Enemies’ is an expertly made little doc that rises above niche filmmaking. It will likely be fondly remembered once end of year “Best Of” lists start rolling out.