Best of Enemies shows how intellectual sparring became TV spectacle — a film review

September 5, 2015

64A masterfully crafted documentary, Best of Enemies uses humor, an intense devotion to archival footage and ultimately, a perspective that looks beyond its subjects to show how wrong we currently treat opposing views. The evidence is all over cable news today: pundits brought in to discuss everything from the state of police relations with the public to what happened on the MTV Music Awards the other night. Is there ever any enlightenment to be had that might actually bring substantive social change?

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, two documentary filmmakers with most of their experience in covering popular music history, posit that there is not. Something was lost sometime in the late 1960s during a televised debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. Buckley, the right-wing conservative, and Vidal, the left-wing liberal, were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach. Both the epitome of opposing intellects instead tore into each others ideals with hardly a true insight into the candidates, and it made for great television. By the time of that year’s Democratic convention in Chicago, ABC, once the lagging third place (and third-rate) network of the only three on commercial television blew away the competition of CBS and NBC. The impact of Gore and Buckley’s vitriolic debates changed news forever.

Best of Enemies spends a good amount of time dwelling on the two men and how they became stars of their political scene based on their writings and television appearances. Buckley, we learn in this film, enjoyed 5dismantling arguments to win them. In the same way, we learn, Vidal took pride in his intense research, in turn using his opponent’s language against him. Both thought their country was in a state of decline and blamed the ideas of the other. They also both ran for political office and failed. And even though both were born in New York, they spoke with affected English accents: the mark of the intellectual.

Early in the film, it’s fun to watch such men trade barbs. Low blows were not uncommon, and the filmmakers share some choice moments. In Chicago, however, the tone shifts, and inter-cutting footage of police crackdowns on protesters with the pundits’ debating, you get the uneasy sense of social breakdown. Couple that with what seems to be Vidal’s quest to break Buckley’s cool demeanor, and an intense suspense seems to build. Indeed it blows up in what was then startling fashion, and you get a sense that the two men will never be the same… nor, for that matter, TV news.

Gordon and Neville stick to using graphics from the era to enhance the archival footage, which often features sweeping shots of static images to add dynamism. They even kick off the film with the bubbling electronic music of Raymond Scott, aWILLIAM BUCKLEY;GORE VIDAL retro representation of the future (though it sounds incredibly dated and quaint now). It genuinely feels as though you are watching a document of that era. The only new footage is that of the talking heads, including Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother Reid Buckley, who offer current perspective on a past that blew everyone who watched television news away (even though they had no idea what a change it would cause).

The filmmakers, though, save their kicker for the end, where both Vidal and Buckley, in a pair of brief clips produced not long after these debates, denounce the idea of debate on TV newscasts for a few minutes at a time while the end credits roll. This is when we also first see current images of modern political conventions, and someone talks about the divide of people who no longer listen to each other. Though of course Gore and Buckley do not deserve all the credit, this documentary allows for a lesson to the present (just check out today’s concerns with the “filter bubble”). Never has the sign of a TV screen cooling off after powering down had more resonance. It’s time to listen again.

Hans Morgenstern

Best of Enemies runs 87 minutes and is rated R (some intense language and possibly vintage nudity). It opened exclusively in our Miami area yesterday, Sept. 4 at Coral Gables Art Cinema. The film premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. It’s opening now in other cities across the U.S. Check out this link for dates and theaters. All images in this post are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures who also provided a screener DVD for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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