Directed by: Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon.
Written by: Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon.
When I watched the pretty good documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia last year, the few minutes the life spanning portrait of Vidal spent on his televised debates with William F. Buckley Jr. were my favorite parts – so much so, that I wished the entire movie had been about them. As if reading my mind, director Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon made Best of Enemies this year which does just that. The film doesn’t just show the debates – although it does that as well – but it also digs into all the stuff that was going around the debates, and the effects that the debates had – on the lives and careers of Vidal and Buckley, and on television news itself. Some of that was good – much of it wasn’t.
In 1968, ABC news was a distant third behind NBC and CBS. The top two networks were going to run “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that year - but ABC decided to try something different – an hour and a half “wrap-up” show that would show the highlights of the conventions and feature other coverage as well. One of the things that they decided to do was to get the well-known Conservative – Buckley – founder of the New Republic Magazine, and the well-known Liberal – Vidal – to debate the issues raised at the debates. The pair ended up making television history. Pretty soon, every network had this sorts of debates during their coverage – and in today’s landscape, whole cable news outlets are built around them.
The Vidal-Buckley debates were different than what we see on TV today – which is basically blowhards on each side yelling at each other (the movie shows the infamous clip of Jon Stewart decrying Crossfire while on the program for doing this during its end credits). Vidal and Buckley were not like that – they were intellectuals, who spoke like intellectuals, and would likely be dismissed as snobs if they tried to go on TV today. For another thing, while you get the impression that many people on today’s TV are simply posturing for the camera, Buckley and Vidal legitimately hated each other – they hated what the other person stood for, and thought that if the country, that they agreed was at a crossroads, were to follow the other one, it would be destroyed.
All the debate clips the movie show are interesting and funny – it’s nice to see two incredibly smart people debate each other using their considerable gifts of language. The infamous exchange – where things got very personal – happens in the 9th debate – where Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”, and Buckley responded with “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” This exchange would still be shocking today – so you can only imagine the stir it caused back in 1968. Even stranger is the effect it had on the two men – who would not or could not just let it go. Buckley was embarrassed that he allowed Vidal to get under his skin so much – and wrote a long article trying to come to grips with why he did it. Vidal, not smart enough to leave well enough alone, and realize he won, responded with his own article – where he insulted Buckley to such an extent, that Buckley sued him and the magazine who ran the article. To the end of their days, they talked about these debates – Buckley horrified when the clip was shown on his last PBS show after decades on the air, and Vidal relishing the fact that he outlived Buckley – so he could have the last word.
The movie is terrifically entertaining for most of its running time – with the clips from the debates, and other appearances by Buckley and Vidal, as well as modern interviews with many of the people who surrounded the two of them at the time, and for years afterwards. When it gets to the post-debate stuff, it turns a little darker – what a shame that something that started out so well has devolved into the clusterfuck of cable news “debate” we have to today – and how kind of sad, and a little pathetic, is it that these two intellectual giants could not just let the damn thing go. The result is a fascinating documentary, about the past and present of American media.