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December 12, 2015

Best of Enemies

by Franz Patrick


Best of Enemies (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

In 1968, ABC was consistently placed third in the Nielsen ratings out of the three competing networks. In an attempt to surge past their competitors, ABC decided to invite William F. Buckley, Jr., a conservative, and Gore Vidal, a liberal, both intellectuals already hating each other years prior, and engage in a series of debates, ten in totality, under ABC News’ coverage of the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, in Miami Beach and Chicago, respectively. Unbeknownst to the third-tier network and the American public, the Buckley-Vidal debates will change and shape the landscape of political punditry.

I must confess that prior to the picture, I knew nothing about Buckley and Vidal. What attracted me to see the documentary is the two figures who did not like each other in the least personally and they had warring political views. These men had to sit across one another and attack using words. The setup reminded me of two men I love to watch debate in something they were passionate about: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, former film critics and journalists of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, respectively. “Best of Enemies,” directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, is a most entertaining and incisive documentary.

Buckley and Vidal’s mutual antipathy is captured and presented with excitement and clarity. Almost immediately we get the impression that both are highly intelligent, cunning, certainly not the kind of men who back down from a fight even when pushed to a corner. As the camera focuses and moves closer to their faces, one can sense the involuntary ticks pulsating behind their facial muscles and rage welling up in their eyes despite the occasional grayness and mid-to-low picture quality of archival footages.

Because the two-way enmity is so alive, so strong that it is almost tactile, tension runs throughout the veins of the documentary. Drama is created and we are thoroughly engaged as captions denoting debate numbers appear on screen. The moment a debate begins, we anticipate how one might respond to the other as the foundations of that person’s argument are laid out. There are great surprises along the way. Duels tend to take a nasty turn. The ninth debate is a showstopper. The men, in their own ways, have a flair for theatrics. Take note, however, that the topics they cover remain relevant today.

Subjects interviewed to support the material ranges from those who knew about Vidal and Buckley’s published works to those who knew them personally. I found a few of their insights about the political landscape at the time to be illuminating. They have a way of referring to the past and making that particular time so exciting because people seem to be concerned about real and important issues. People either wanted to make a big change or preserve what was there.

Toward the documentary’s conclusion, one of the interviewees makes a great observation about watching television during that time. Since everybody saw the same images, though not everyone had the same opinion, there was a sense of community, a sense of being a nation. People talked about what they saw on TV the next day. Compared to the manner in which we acquire and digest information today, I can agree to some degree that we have lost such positive elements.

“Best of Enemies” offers plenty of amusing and clever vitriolic remarks, but it also works as a lamentation—of one’s dreams of greatness never achieved, of one’s regrets, and of a time that once was. There comes a point in the film where the narration considers Vidal feeling a sense of failure near the end of his career because young people had stopped paying attention to his work or that he had been forgotten completely. Because the film showcases his intellectual prowess, it inspired me to look into his work.

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