Best of Enemies (2015) / Documentary-History

MPAA Rated: R for some sexual content/nudity and language
Running Time: 87 min.

Cast: Gore Vidal (archive), William F. Buckley (archive), Christopher Hitchens, Reid Buckley, Matt Tyrnauer, Dick Cavett, Noam Chomsky (archive), Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), William Sheehan, Sam Tanenhaus, Frank Rich
Director: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Screenplay: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville

Review published August 30, 2015

Documentarians Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash's America, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan) and Oscar-winning Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Troubadors) collaborate for this historical documentary that examines the bitter relationship between redoubtable conservative big-thinker William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author and cultural iconoclast Gore Vidal, especially on their series of ten televised debates they did for the flagging ABC network's coverage during both the Republican and the infamous Democratic National Conventions in Miami and Chicago, respectively, in 1968. The two very complex but brilliant east coast elites were alike in many ways in terms of their backgrounds, but couldn't be more different in terms of their political ideologies, which made them see their mirror opposites in the arena of public discourse as an enemy to the future of the country that needed to be exposed to the public as a fraud and never to be trusted.

The debates weren't so much about the issues of the day (racism, Vietnam, and police tactics were touched upon, but quickly descended into barbed insults) so much as about very intelligent but contemptuously passive-aggressive opponents duking it out intellectually, trying frame their opponent in a bad light, which tickled the viewing public to see such vitriol openly on display, and boosted the ratings for the third-place network substantially. Their animosity toward one another would become evident during one of the debate sessions when Vidal agitates Buckley to such an extent that the latter erupted into profanity while live on the air, threatening violence upon Vidal should he continue his current line of insults. Vidal asserted that Buckley was a "crypto-Nazi", infuriating the very reserved Buckley to respond with uncharacteristically seething anger, stating, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face -- and you'll stay plastered!"

Though such exchanges aren't rare by today's television standards, it was unprecedented for a live network news feed in 1968, and the fallout of the moment would continue throughout the rest of their careers, with neither men able to let things go, even when the public at large long since had. Their already adversarial relationship only worsened over time, even culminating in the two men suing one another. Years later, Buckley couldn't let it go, continuing to do damage control in writing soul-searching pieces on how and why he had lost his composure in such a public arena, while Vidal would regularly replay the debates decades later, and make others watch, perhaps feeling content that he feels that he accomplished what he had set out to do.  But they never were able to come to terms, and they hated each other with the kind of passion usually only reserved for genocidal dictators. In 2008, upon the passing of William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal even wrote an obit piece on him, stating, "R.I.P. W.F.B. - in Hell".   They were so consumed by their hatred of one another that they couldn't just debate their ideas; they wanted to intellectually assassinate one another, and do so in the most public forum possible.

The ratings boon of those debates would change the coverage of political conventions forever, and, for better or worse, had planted the seeds of cable news coverage today, perpetually pitting two or more people with opposing viewpoints on any topic that has political ramifications.  Though the film is about politics, the delivery tries to not take sides, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both men, both as political pundits and as people.  The movie concentrates on the significance of the discourse and format of the debates, and its influence on how news is presented, and not the content of who is right and who is wrong.  Balancing out the film seems to be a goal of Gordon and Neville, who cast conservative actor Kelsey Grammer (The Expendables 3) to voice William F. Buckley from his written works, while liberal John Lithgow (Interstellar) voices Gore Vidal.  As such, the movie can be enjoyed by all side of the political spectrum, especially those interested in the history of 1968, as well as for those who like to see how news and media formats have changed over the years, in part thanks to the Buckley-Vidal debates.

Best of Enemies is a well-packaged doc that is always interesting, but not always as incisive or important as you'd expect from the material, perhaps because it doesn't include the participation of the now-deceased Buckley or Vidal (Vidal had been interviewed prior to his death in 2012, but the directors didn't think it right to not balance this with an interview with the late Buckley).  Nevertheless, following two learned, engaging, and erudite thinkers and talkers like Buckley and Vidal is a fascinating proposition, and it is fascinating to watch their dynamics when it comes to their debates, as the hatred is so palpable, you feel like you could almost slice into the sub-zero frostiness of their contempt, much as they incisively tried to slice into one another.  These are two giant political thinkers with fragile egos and pompously arrogant personalities, put into an intellectual cage match as mortal enemies, but so much alike that they know the weaknesses of the other every bit as they know their own. 

Best of Enemies
doesn't probe deeply or dig down into heavy, gritty thematic substance, but it does entertain and provoke, which is fitting, as the same could also be said about the Vidal-Buckley debates, and, perhaps sadly, of political discourse on the cable and network news channels today, only without the kind of deeply thoughtful thinkers and wordsmiths of the Buckley and Vidal mold we sorely miss from modern political thinking.

Qwipster's rating:

2000 Vince Leo