Best of Enemies

A documentary about the legendary series of nationally televised debates in 1968 between two great public intellectuals, the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Intended as commentary on the issues of their day, these vitriolic and explosive encounters came to define the modern era of public discourse in the media, marking the big bang moment of our contemporary media landscape when spectacle trumped content and argument replaced substance. Best of Enemies delves into the entangled biographies of these two great thinkers and luxuriates in the language and the theater of their debates, begging the question, 'What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?'

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  • ★★★½ review by Chris Hormann on Letterboxd

    An entertaining if light take on the television debates between public intellectuals Gore Vidal and William F Buckley during the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968. It picks some great clips (so certainly subjective) but doesn't really get under the skin of the two combatants.

    The argument that their influence on the political landscape of public debate was indelible is not really proved by this doco and one wonders what a TV series on the subject might have achieved. Still it is refreshing to see the debate of ideas on the big screen, something all too rare in our current climate of 140 character opinions.

  • ★★★½ review by ava davis on Letterboxd

    Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in you goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.

  • ★★★★½ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd

    I'm pretty sure I have, sometime in the recent past, written about my fascination for societies in flux. I'm pretty sure when I said it I had my head stuck deep in Fassbinder's oeuvre. I'm sure I lamented the fact that Western society has now, predominantly, for better or worse, settled on a model that few bother to question. Capitalism, corporatisation and conservatism are now inextricably linked and, rather disturbingly, taken as a given.

    This wasn't always the case. There was a time when conservatism went head to head with libertarianism; when capitalism was questioned and where the straight, white, phallic pillars of conservative Western society were energetically shouldered. And it could have gone either way.

    The struggle was real. The fight was for the hearts and minds of the population of the country at the forefront of the (then) new world order and in 1968 on the unexpected battlefront of the ABC network's coverage of the Republican and Democrat conventions, the two armies found their unflappable, self-appointed generals. For the conservatives, smarmily-smiled William F. Buckley Jnr. For the liberals, smugly erudite aesthete Gore Vidal.

    America didn't know what hit it.

    The thrilling intellectual beauty of Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's punchy survey of the battlefield, apart from the two (well, one and a half) heavyweights it puts centrestage, is its generous attachment to context. The film makers pour over the state of the U.S. at the time, painting it as incendiary, and not without reason. The Vietnam War, civil rights demonstrations and the growing visibility of the young gay rights movement (spurred on in part by Vidal's "racy" literary output) meant the siege of traditionalism was coming to a much needed head.

    Gordon and Neville aren't attached so much to the ideas that were being bashed around as they are to the tumultuous world they are being bashed around in. Likewise, they aren't overly concerned with the opinions as they are with how virulently they were being expressed.

    The same can be said of debates themselves, which the film makers have carefully spaced to make the most of their gradual escalation; they barely touch the issues. They are delicious performances. They are broad brushed character assassinations that dig deep and with great relish into the ingrained ideological differences embodied within these two men, ideological differences which would come to define the United States in the decades to come.

    It may be simplistic to paint the emerging situation the film throws into with a fascist/social justice dichotomy but I will say, with Gordon and Neville's crackling insertion of footage of the violent demonstrations that surrounded both conventions, Vidal's crypto-nazi cherry bomb (as onetime Vidal protege, Christopher Hitchens, labels it) certainly isn't that hard to swallow. Not that it doesn't get caught in Buckley's throat.

    Ironically, the path that the rabble rousing success of the Buckley/Vidal spar set televised commentary on precludes labeling Best of Enemies "balanced" - though, from where I stand, the film is a reasonably faithful presentation of the situation. Gordon and Neville may not throw up quite as much rah-rah for Buckley as they do for Vidal but Buckley is not the kind of man that inspires a cheer squad (at least not the kind of cheer squad that I'd be happy to join). He did, mind you, as the film notes, congeal the conservative movement in America and watching him at work gives real insight into the right wing conservative mindset.

    That is the other fascination of Gordon and Neville's film, and a testament to its subjects: how passionately they evoke their love for the United States and how, in doing so, they also eviscerate it. Patriotism in anyone's hand is a double edged sword. In the hands of Buckley and Vidal it is a scalpel and the ensuing dissection spills more than its fair share of entrails. Watching, even from this distance, is both upsetting and invigorating. There is real fire in the discussion. It fuels these to ideologues and, though the film probably makes more of it than was likely the case, it does in some way define them. The two men were most themselves when they were locking horns. Both knew it was a performance but both new it was an important, nation saving act.


    So while Best of Enemies does milk Buckley-Vidal opposition for all its worth, it does so in ways that remain true to their carefully cultivated public personas and their political essence. I'm sure the two men weren't kept up at night tying themselves in knots over their intellectual feud but there can be no doubt that the conflict left its mark on both of them. The beautiful Sunset Boulevard anecdote, which sees Vidal locked away in his villa, Norma Desmond style, obsessing over his performance, is too perfect not to be true, and Buckley's violent reaction to any line of questioning that pressed on that moment of his past betrayed his personal millstone.

    It is these acute character moments that connect Gordon and Neville's film so completely with its audience. It is an extraordinary encapsulation of those who feel deeply and live fully according to their political persuasion, and how those lives chart the lives of others around them. It tracks politics from its virile fervour to its final breaths, either hollowed out, as in Buckley's case (his response to whether he would go back to his youth is one of the saddest moments I've witnessed on film this year) or disillusioned (and living self-satisfied on the Amalfi Coast) as it went with Vidal.

    Best of Enemies is an absorbing portrait of the birth of modern American media discourse that circumscribes an era that only really existed in the passionate political distance between two men. It is film at once fascinated by a single flashpoint in history and saddened by the way in which it passed, not through resolution (or revolution) but though a dismembering of the United States as a nation. It is a lament for that country's now-ringfenced political life, where it is possible to live without ever experiencing a properly dissenting viewpoint.

    Or maybe it is just pining for the fact that political debate has just not been as delectable since.

  • ★★★½ review by Craig Duffy on Letterboxd

    When I watched that Gore Vidal doc from a few years ago I pined for a doc with a much narrower focus. This is that doc, but I still only like this one so so. I don't think it really makes its case. It's fine watching the clips even though they aren't really insightful. I do pine for the day when it was ok to be intellectual. Buckley would be eaten alive by the modern conservative movement's overall denunciation of being smart.

  • ★★★½ review by D K on Letterboxd

    An exciting documentary about two unrivaled intellectual heavyweights who in the 1960s were gleefully skewering all challengers, until their eyes met across the unlikely battlefield of the 1968 Republican Convention, where third-place network ABC decided to make a ratings grab by staging a series of nightly debates. On the right was William F. Buckley, Jr., the cool and collected lion of the conservative movement. On the left Gore Vidal, the keenly aware author and political commentator who brought splashy verve and queer thought to both art and argument. ABC could not have asked for a better battle of the titans.

    Best of Enemies wants to capitalize on that battle as much as possible, finding a powerful rhythm that carries us through increasingly adversarial encounters, finally culminating in the infamous episode where Vidal goads Buckley so much that the normally sanguine man explodes, calls Vidal a queer and threatens to knock him out. It was great television then, and it's great television now.

    The film up to this point has been an engaging yarn, but it starts to achieve some heft as it careens downhill through the fallout of the incident, the lawsuits and hurt feelings, the libelous depictions of Buckley in Vidal's novels, the wall of silence and antipathy that formed between them. Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon play up the idea that although these men were arch-nemeses, the rupture between them was a deep and painful one. This sets up the film's actual moral strike point: at the end of the day, neither Buckley nor Vidal felt that television was the future of journalism. Both recognized that television could only turn discourse into entertainment, and as the film shows us present-day images of cable news shouting matches, a chill ran through my bones, because the predictions of these two very intelligent men had come absolutely true, and they had had a small hand in making it happen.

    It should be said that although I find William F. Buckley, Jr. a compelling personality, I find his politics abhorrent. But Buckley's gift is that he doesn't equivocate. He forcefully and even intelligently argues for his beliefs, as white supremacist as they are. His composure and soft purr force you to consider his words; you can't dismiss him on account of vitriol or volume, and that's why he was dangerous. The GOP of his day is unrecognizable by comparison, a mass of eyeless gelatin-monsters each trying to flop its way to the top of a garbage pile. I think it's pretty obvious that directors Neville and Gordon aren't the biggest fan of Buckley's ideologies either, and sometimes the film feels like it's leaning a little too far into Vidal's camp. Despite the fact that I'm politically much closer to Vidal, I'd have liked this documentary to remain just a touch more circumspect.

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