Best of Enemies feels initially like a subpar title for Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s film, which charts the fiery debates between two great American public intellectuals against the backdrop of the nation’s presidential candidate selections – something tacked on as a mild turn of phrase when its producers couldn’t think of anything wittier. However, as the film develops into a more personal study of its subjects, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, their relationship, and the moment in history captured and encapsulated by their televised sparring, the title begins to ring more true. The pair’s enmity, far from manufactured election-time voxpopping, reflected widening clefts in political culture, and laid bare all that Americans felt was at stake via two aggressively principled and profoundly eloquent men of letters. The film’s strength lies in its ability to explore the socio-political backdrop to the Vidal-Buckley debates, and their own eccentric and often contested biographies, without meandering from the progression through the ten 1968 broadcasts which underpins its narrative. Both a paean to the art of debate and an invigorating document of the culture war, Best of Enemies has enough dramatic flair to engage non-politicos, but also enough substance to absorb those looking for meatier fare.
Some of the most interesting historical context provided early in the film relates to the industrial position of the network – the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC – which aired the debates. Several figures who were higher-ups in different media organisations at the time appear as talking heads to relay the network’s unimpressive status leading in to 1968’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions; behind the giants CBC and NBC, the ABC was “third of the three – would’ve been fourth, but there were only three,” as one former executive chuckles. Shoehorning ninety minutes of hardened back-and-forth into their schedule was a decision borne of necessity rather than conviction.1 Neville and Gordon don’t rely too heavily on these talking head figures, though – which is an impressive level of restraint when you have the late Christopher Hitchens, Vidal’s publisher, and Buckley’s brother all on board – seeming to understand that the fascination inherent in contemporary archival footage is the main draw here. Padding out the presidential primaries with information about the country’s public mood, and the media culture underlying the production of the debate programs, is actually vital in contextualising the venality of the men who then take part.
Born six weeks apart in 1925, Vidal and Buckley were superficially similar men, a point which the film touches on but doesn’t labour. Both outsiders who had shuffled sideways into the East Coast establishment, both possessed of extraordinary transatlantic accents and vocabularies, and both harbingers of tremendous social upheaval, they would have been firm friends had they not taken up polar opposite political positions. Indeed, one talking head astutely argues that their very similarity was what fuelled their utter hatred of one another, each seeing what he himself could have become; either Buckley the libertarian, Christian arch-conservative or Vidal the controversial, lurid iconoclast. Neville and Gordon choose to structure their film such that the personality clash at the heart of the debates is only slowly introduced. It’s measured brilliantly, so that a real tension builds through the film to mimic the increasing animosity on Americans’ TVs as they watched at home over the course of weeks.
The climax of Best of Enemies may rely somewhat on the kind of fetishisation of drama in politics which the film otherwise decries as a shallow modern invention, but this transgression is forgivable considering the infamy of the event it depicts. Having sniped at one another with barbs of impeccable wit for eight debates,2 the ninth saw the pair’s discussion turn to the free speech, with Buckley citing US pro-Nazis as a group who had the right to express their ideas but were also rightfully ostracised. Vidal, unwisely, calls his opponent a “crypto-Nazi” himself, and Buckley goes ballistic, calling Vidal a “queer”3 and threatening to punch him. It’s a spectacular piece of unscripted television, and Neville and Gordon do milk it for all it’s worth, with a series of comical cuts to their interviewees, made to seem as though they are as dumbstruck as contemporaneous viewers. Wisely, they do look to explore the lasting effects of this one moment of explosiveness rather than end the film here. These final sequences, though, are its most disappointing. While the lifelong regrets held by both men regarding their feud, ensuing lawsuits, and each other’s continued success do go some way to illustrate their mercurial personalities, the links between the great Buckley-Vidal blow-up and the development of the American New Right, and the shift from television as a dominant medium to 24-hour news cycles rendering such drama run-of-the-mill, do not feel adequately explored. Fortunately, though, the inherent drama of a moment of such social tension, with battles over Vietnam, civil rights, welfarism, and sexual permissiveness raging almost palpably in the background, is thrilling enough to stand on its own. As such, the film’s role in providing an atmospheric and well-edited milieu to a complex situation, while also illustrating the era with rare and vivid archival footage, is all that it needs to become a gripping, illuminating documentary.
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