Two men debating the platforms in the Democratic and Republican conventions during 1968 would set the stage for decades of argument over foreign policy and fiscal politics. Like fortune tellers, they prophesied a polarizing, ideological divide in American society: one an Anglo-Saxon Christian with firm conservative convictions, the other an influential liberal who shaped the discourse on sexual, gender, and economic politics. Their beliefs could hardly be any different, but they shared one concern: America’s growing divide between rich and poor, rising racial unrest, and developing chaotic wars around the world; these should not continue.
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary on the public feud between conservative National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. and uber-liberal playwright and author Gore Vidal is about that specific time in America, but more intriguingly, how that period shaped contemporary politics and television. The recounting of the ten debates that aired on ABC in 1968 are examined through three clear layers: (1) a history of network television news, (2) a metaphor of the hostile divide between the political right and left through Buckley and Vidal, and (3) a time capsule of the political turmoil from then to now.
As a struggling network, ABC couldn’t afford to do wall-to-wall coverage of the GOP and Democratic conventions like the other TV stations, so they decided to take a chance by airing live debates between Buckley and Vidal. Little did they know that the eccentric mannerisms, witty insults, and tension-filled anger in these two intellectuals would sky-rocket their ratings and change the way news was done: two pundits arguing over an issue. Best of Enemies deals with this history efficiently and humorously.
Best of Enemies does a good job of framing the ten debates with modern talking-head interviews from friends of Buckley and Vidal who stage the ABC coverage in their socio-economic context while relating it to ours. Sometimes the film just shows lengthy excerpts from the debates where the two men sling mud, like an infamous instance where Buckley calls Vidal a “queer,” telling him “I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” The quick editing and precise but sometimes frantic score builds the fiery tempers while staging the clips from the debates in a way that accentuates their energy, passion, and wit. The lead up to Buckley’s infamous meltdown is developed as if it were the final shootout or the championship game.
In almost every way, excluding a section at the end which strays from the three distinct layers in the film to examine allegations that Buckley was a homosexual, Best of Enemies is full of fast-paced theatrics–the kind ABC was trying to harness to boost ratings. But like this style of news, the film feels like a play of sound and fury without much deep thought, because it focuses more on the ad hominem slurs and Buckley and Vidal’s back-handed comments than the actual issues. The film only references these mens’ ideas rather than engaging with how they relate to the vague portrait of American politics that is painted.
One thing that makes these debates so striking in contrast with today’s political coverage is Vidal and Buckley’s precision and articulation. They speak with depth and clarity. They may resort to ad hominem attacks, but they are still dealing with ideas in ways that are thoughtful and uncommon today–where whoever yells the loudest wins the debate.
From the way these two sides have remained static on their proposed solutions to the frustrating lack of a consensus on the issues, the more the world has changed the more these issues have remained the same, slowly inflating like a balloon just waiting to pop. As long as we continue to argue with personal attacks and ignore the issues with shallow news coverage, we will still be waiting. Best of Enemies feels like its own worst enemy; it recognizes the problems in America, offering two different perspectives, but it does little to weigh the solutions.