He Said/He Said (Documentary Review: “Best of Enemies”)

Two titans of intellect square off against the backdrop of America’s 1968 Presidential Election, changing TV news forever.

 

SnapShot Plot

We are living in interesting times. It seems that everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with screaming headlines, deadly plots, and endlessly talking heads. As our country’s political conversation veers into the realm of rhetorical madness and puppet theatre, I began to wonder where the real conversations could be found, or for that matter if they ever existed at all? Maybe the closest we ever came to true political and cultural debate took place almost 50 years ago, ironically conceived as a ratings ploy.

Strange as it may seem today, back in the 1960s there were only three television networks in the Unites States: NBC, CBS, and ABC. No Cable, and of course, no Digital. Talk about a captive audience. And while NBC and CBS were vying for top dog, ABC was firmly, frustratingly in the ratings doghouse, until the 1968 Presidential election presented a half-baked opportunity for the News Division to drum up some attention. Nobody could have foreseen the shift in political coverage, indeed in TV broadcasting, that this programming experiment would herald.

Best of Enemies is the captivating, insightful documentary about the series of ten, one-on-one debates during both parties’ conventions, between intellectual arch rivals, the uber-Conservative ideologue, William F. Buckley, Jr. and the liberal, avant-garde novelist, Gore Vidal. There aren’t enough oil-and-water analogies to depict just how polar opposite these two men were, or to describe the deep reserves of animosity and hatred they felt for each other. It was a long shot even getting them in the same room, let alone spending such a protracted amount of time in each other’s company to discuss the issues, vis a vis the political and social upheavals taking shape around the conventions in Miami and Chicago. In hindsight it could be viewed as a high risk gamble on the part of the ABC News brass, who desperately needed something to draw the American audience’s attention away from the traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage to which the other networks continued to subscribe. But what did ABC have to lose, anyway? They were already dead last in the ratings; they could only go up.

 

 “Listen, you Queer . . .”

Parting Shot

Produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal is that rare piece of documentary film making which captures both the essence of Vidal and Buckley’s personas at the heart of the picture, but also paints in bold brushstrokes the canvas of an America which was coming loose at the seams. And they managed to do this in a brisk, tightly edited 87 minutes. With the help of rare archival footage, and bolstered by interviews with colleagues, friends and family of both men, it’s clear the enormous contribution William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal have made to the cultural and political paradigm.

As much as I was interested in how the juxtaposition of Buckley’s and Vidal’s philosophies symbolized the seismic shifts taking place in the country, I was captivated by the cutaways to Buckley family pictures, home movies of Vidal in his Italian palazzo in Ravello, and the footage of Raquel Welch embodying Vidal’s literary heroine, Myra Breckinridge in the bizarre Hollywood adaptation of the novel. It’s fair to say (as expressed in the documentary) that Buckley and Vidal thought each other the Devil. But as we watch the debates unfolding, it’s abundantly clear that if ever two individuals were evenly matched, in terms of intelligence, eloquence, education and substance, it’s these two. And it seems they sensed this connection, at heart. There’s also a chilling, nefarious quality to them both, which in Buckley’s case seems to spring from a ferociously rabid ego, and in Vidal’s case comes across as an aberrant sexuality which Buckley identifies as dangerous and evil. However you judge their contributions to the American zeitgeist in hindsight, these people were thoughtful and provocative, and there are, sadly, few voices on the horizon which resonate with their intelligence and intellect.

Best of Enemies is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzgfQvB2dvA

 

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