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Josh Reviews Best of Enemies

December 16th, 2015

Best of Enemies is a fascinating documentary that tells the story of the ten live debates on ABC in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.  The film is a riveting examination of this lightning-rod moment in American television and politics, one whose reverberations are still clearly being felt today.

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In 1968, ABC was a third-place network, and they found themselves looking for a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions.  And so, for the first time ever, ABC decided not to run continuous live coverage of the convention, instead cutting away periodically for a series of live debates between Mr. Buckley Jr., a Conservative, and Mr. Vidal, a liberal.  The result was a series of fierce debates between these two men who not only stood on polar opposite sides of the American political spectrum but who also, apparently, shared a deep antipathy for one another.  This antipathy exploded in a shocking moment in which, after Mr. Vidal called Mr. Buckley Jr. a crypto-Nazi, Mr. Buckley Jr. called Mr. Vidal a queer.  All on live television.

Best of Enemies, directed skillfully by Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, is a wonderful examination of those ten debates and the events leading up to them.  The film gives us a concise but thorough background to the social issues roiling through the United States during those months of 1968.  Even more interesting — and critical to the story being told by the documentary — is that the film explores the background and political views of both men, Vidal and Buckley Jr.  Both men led fascinating lives, and I found it to be incredibly absorbing watching the film chronicle all the events that led the two men to their confrontation in the 1968 debates.

The film is well structured, jumping into footage from the debates fairly early (as opposed to making us wait until late in the film, only after having gotten all the backstory).  Instead, the film cleverly takes us through each of the ten debates sequentially, pausing between each debate to fill in more and more of the backstory.  By the time we get to the shocking name-calling late in the film, at that point we have a full picture of who these two men are, and of their individual passions that led them to that ugly confrontation.

The story of the film is told in three ways.  Number one, we hear from a terrific assembly of the men and women who were close to Mr. Vidal and Mr. Buckley, and to the events of the debate.  (I loved hearing from Dick Cavett and the late Christopher Hitchens, and I was particularly fascinated to hear the commentary from Mr. Buckley Jr.’s brother.)  Number two, the film presents us with a wealth of footage of the two men, both individually and together during their ABC debates.  I loved watching this footage.  The film strikes the perfect balance of showing us a ton of that actual footage, without ever showing us so much that the film becomes repetitive or dull.  Number three, the film allows us to get into the minds of Mr. Buckley and Mr. Vidal by using readings of their writings, letter, and other original sources.  John Lithgow serves as the voice of Mr. Vidal, while Kelsey Grammer serves as the voice of Mr. Buckley Jr.  Both actors are perfectly chosen — these are not imitators of the voices of Vidal and Buckley Jr., but rather men chosen because of their distinct, wonderful voices (and also, likely, because of their own well-known political leanings).  This was exactly the correct choice in my mind, and it’s wonderful the way the film occasionally dips into this narration by these two men, helping Mr. Buckley and Mr. Vidal (both of whom have passed away) to tell their own stories over the course of the film.

Best of Enemies makes the case that the popularity of these explosive live debates paved the way for much of what our television news landscape looks like today, filled with talking heads bitterly arguing with one another.  Watching the film, I was also struck by how the issues that so strongly divided Mr. Vidal and Mr. Buckley Jr. are exactly, and I mean exactly, the same issues that are so divisive in our country today.  It’s sad to see how we remain mired in these issues.

But don’t get me wrong — while those conclusions are somewhat depressing, Best of Enemies isn’t a downer of a film.  No, it’s great fun.  The film is filled with lots of terrific stories, and it is energetically edited together, moving along at a rapid clip.  (The DVD has a wealth of additional interview material.  There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in there and I’m glad to have watched it all, but I think the filmmakers made the right choice in keeping their film very tightly-edited.)  And I found myself absolutely engrossed by the footage of the debates between these two men.  You don’t have to be a political junkie to be interested in this film.  What’s fascinating about Mr. Vidal and Mr. Buckely, and their debates, is how clearly the two men express profoundly different viewpoints.  Watching those viewpoints collide is quite extraordinary.

I highly recommend this documentary, and I encourage you all to track it down.

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