Best of Enemies (2015)
Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
With a haze of racial inequality and Presidential politics in the air, two political pundits—one liberal and one conservative—took to television to challenge the political discourse. I could be describing any cable news channel on any number of nights in the past four or five months, but I’m not. This is the impossibly relevant backdrop of the 1968 Gore Vidal v. William Buckley debates, documented in the culturally important “Best of Enemies.”
Of the three network television channels in 1968, ABC was undisputedly in third place. They didn’t have the money or the manpower to cover the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions gavel-to-gavel, like their competitors NBC and CBS were doing. So they decided to bring in liberal author and playwright Gore Vidal and conservative essayist and National Review editor William Buckley, for a series of ten televised debates (five for each convention). During their often colorful and sometimes heated exchanges, the two men—who had for years despised one another—challenged political opinions and changed the way politics would be covered on television to this very day. After 1968, political punditry ran wild. But was that their intention?
If “Best of Enemies” fails in any way, it’s that the importance of it is not clearly outlined until the end. Without a foreseeable story arc, the documentary simply follows the timeline of the men’s lives and interactions with one another. Sometimes, the chronology isn’t even exactly linear. And the debates themselves seemed personal and self-contained, though the context surrounding them had wide-reaching effects—the importance of which wouldn’t be fully recognized until years later. “Best of Enemies” keeps you interested (not to mention entertained) by using interviews with family, friends, biographers, historians, and media moguls. All of them take sides, but “Best of Enemies remains neutral by showing the pros and cons of both men. It paints hauntingly clear pictures of who these two men were, to the point that you feel like you know them. Of course, the biggest draw is seeing these two intellectuals challenge one another on issues that still loom large today—war and race not the least of them. This was a time when celebrity spats were about issues more substantial than ex-boyfriends or sub-Tweets. These feuds weren’t ended with a musical collaboration on the VMAs. One of the men interviewed quipped, “Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” That’s truer now than ever. But “Best of Enemies” is also an autopsy of today’s 24-hour cable news cycle, and how it has evolved in the decades since the Vidal v. Buckley debates. The volume of your words has seemingly surpassed the words themselves when it comes to importance. Now, heated argument is what we crave, not just the occasional byproduct of a disagreement.
“Best of Enemies” is one of 2015’s most culturally significant films. It’s even more relevant at this moment than the filmmakers—who I’m sure were keenly aware of the relevance—could have possibly realized. The role of media is ever-changing. The 24-hour news cycle has greatly increased the role of the media in directing public opinion. That’s not always a good thing. In a way, Gore Vidal and William Buckley are directly to blame. “Best of Enemies” examines that very idea smartly and satirically.