Arts Review, Movies

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies featured image

Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon, directors
Feature documentary
Starring: Gore Vidal & William F. Buckley, Jr.
With: Howard K. Smith, Noam Chomsky, Dick Cavett

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies evokes the Sixties, arguably the most exciting decade since the end of World War Two. The civil rights movement in the U.S., Trudeaumania in Canada, London’s Swinging London fashion and music scene, the French New Wave, the rise of the hippies in California, the liberation of most of Africa and the rise of Fidel in Cuba all took place then. There was a heady mix of art, culture, lifestyle changes and politics in the air. This was also the time of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King: violence was always in the air.

Two of the key figures in the U.S. during those days were Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. They were reigning intellectuals at a time when speakers who possessed gifted rhetorical flourishes, a quick command of the issues at hand and skillful repartee actually drew audiences. Vidal had achieved fame as the satirical novelist who wrote a book about a transgender film buff and dominatrix called Myra Breckenridge, who takes on Hollywood and the conventions of American society. Buckley’s fame arose through his controversial talk show Firing Line in which he bated and debated liberals with his conservative acid wit.

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In 1968, ABC-TV, ranked dead last among the three big broadcasters in the U.S., far below CBS and NBC, decided to hire Buckley and Vidal to debate the issues and events that transpired at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. It was a masterstroke for the station, which saw ratings soar even though the coverage of the choices for the presidential candidates at both conventions was handled far better by the two senior TV networks.

In Best of Enemies directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon have used the footage of the Vidal-Buckley debates as the combustible element that drives the doc’s narrative forward. Neville, who won an Oscar for the documentary on backup singers 24 Feet from Stardom and Gordon, who has directed docs on such musicians as Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop, know how to cut together the best of the debate footage with the aplomb one sees in the finest rock docs. Vidal and Buckley detested each other and the directors were able to manipulate the footage of their verbal confrontations  combined with more recent interviews with their contemporaries like Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother Reid to emphasize the increasing depth of their animosity as the debates continued.

Vidal and Buckley’s verbal sparring grew dramatically as the conventions unfolded. When the Republicans staged their convention in Miami, where there were only a few protests. That was definitely not the case in Chicago, when the Democrats convened a few weeks after Miami. Confrontations between protestors against the Vietnam War reached a frenzied pitch with tens of thousands on the streets running into the hardnosed power of the Chicago police force. With international coverage at its height, Vidal and Buckley nearly came to blows by the evening of their last debate. Vidal called Buckley a “crypto Nazi”’ and Buckley, his face pursed in anger called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to hit him so hard, he’d “stay hit.”

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While Vidal won the debate in most people’s eyes, the years since 1968 have proven to better for Buckley’s conservative movement, which went on to elect Nixon in ’68 and more significantly Reagan in the ‘80s and latterly the two Bushes. Vidal’s liberalism, at the centre of the American body politick from the time of FDR’s New Deal, came apart as the new wave of right wing ideologues took control in the U.S. and many Western countries in the ‘80s.

As for the debates, their success spurred on the Shock TV/Point—Counterpoint confrontational television of the present. It’s odd that two intellectuals were the forebears of TV-of-the-lowest-common-denominator but one can never predict the future.

Still, I’ll take a try: Best of Enemies will be a huge doc success in the U.S. but will register far less well in Canada. This is brilliant political and media history but it will be too American for our audiences.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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