Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
In 1968, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. had a series of 10 debates aired on ABC during its coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The most distinct memory that many tend to have of the debates is their fiery end; tensions eventually hit such a peak that Vidal accused Buckley of being a crypto-Nazi, and Buckley responded by calling Vidal a queer, all on live television. What the well-executed documentary Best of Enemies chronicles is what led up to that moment and what it ended up creating, both for the two men involved and for American political discussion as a whole.
What’s key to Best of Enemies is that it doesn’t sentimentalize Vidal and Buckley’s relationship. They despised one another. As Christopher Hitchens puts it at one point, “Each thought the other was dangerous.” In Vidal, the hyper-conservative Buckley saw a force out to corrupt the innocence of America through filth and perversion. In Buckley, the liberal Vidal saw a raging, entitled monster interested only in furthering the interests of people within his class and nobody else. Each of them felt it their duty to ruin the other’s reputation, and each (in different ways) underestimated the skill, cunning, and power of the other. At one point, the film cuts to the heart of this: each of them, in some respects, was a mirror of the other’s anxieties about themselves.
It was a brilliant plan as well. ABC, at the time, was struggling in the ratings, unable to touch either CBS or NBC. And when they announced this unconventional new form of news coverage, they were scorned for it, considered almost traitorous to the integrity of televised news. (There was still a distinct myopia to even the more reputable news outlets of the time, something the film is abundantly clear about.) Through a mixture of archival footage and select readings of both men’s writing on the event, as interpreted by John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley, Best of Enemies is effective as both a chronicle of a fraught era in American history and an origin story of the modern state of American televised news journalism.
In a fashion, it’s also an elegy for the current state of things. One of the most curious things about watching Buckley and Vidal spar is the intellect, speed, and cunning each brings to the table. Buckley was a master of debate; his show Firing Line, which predated this event, was among the first talking-head debate shows on television. Buckley was as aggressively Republican as it gets, but there was also an ease and charm to his delivery. He could tear an opponent to shreds with a smile on his face and took no shortage of pleasure in doing so. Vidal, meanwhile, was more given to TV-friendly quips but also brought a tenacity and preparation to the first round of debates (in line with the RNC) that initially caught Buckley off-guard. Above all, they were both hyper-literate intellectuals. They were articulate in a way that many of the film’s panelists note would simply not work today. Both would be classified as elitists for some of the approaches they took to political discussion.
It’s precisely because of their many similiarities that the men were so opposed to one another, so much so that when Buckley passed away first in 2008, Vidal cordially asked him to “rest in hell.” Best of Enemies paints a fair portrait of both men’s skills and weaknesses, but their ultimate commonality is found in how neither was ever able to let the debate go, especially Buckley, who was rather cruelly baited into discussing it further on the final episode of Firing Line a few years before his death. And for Vidal, the insult he had taken could never be revoked, and it ate at him until he too died in 2012. (The film has no latter-day interviews with either; production began after Buckley’s passing, and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville felt it imprudent to only allow one man to plead his case.) The film is comprehensive in its scope but works best as a deeply felt illustration of the fury of late-‘60s American politics, as seen through two men who couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed.
And perhaps, most poignantly, Best of Enemies is about an art form lost with time and modern technology and an era in which people still crowded around in communal form to hear ideas, when it was harder to surround yourself only with that which you agree and block out anything that might differ from your own ideologies. For the animosity between Vidal and Buckley, and the eventual collapse into lifelong contempt, there was a certain begrudging esteem at work as well, from two minds at the heights of their respective powers locking horns. At least they were coming from a place of conviction. What’s that say about the many talking heads today, there to holler one another into utter incoherence?
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