Best Of Enemies
Before I saw the promotional material for this, from documentarians Robert Gordon and 20 Feet From Stardom’s Morgan Neville, I had never heard of William F. Buckley and was only dimly aware of Gore Vidal from a few half-hearted scrollings through a compendium of his essays, which I found rather too dense and, well, wordy for my taste. That the respective lives and careers of the two men had crashed into each other at a crucial period of 20th century American history was an unknown to me, but it was clear that a potentially fascinating story could be created out of that clamorous back and forth. Was the team of Gordon and Neville the way to create that story, or would Best Of Enemies be just another archive footage filled trip to the well of production line style documentary filmmaking?
In 1968, the Republicans meet in Miami and the Democrats meet in Chicago, to select their candidates for the Presidential election. ABC News, trailing behind their more illustrious brethren in the ratings war, decides upon a unique approach to its convention coverage: a series of ten debates between noted conservative commentator William F. Buckley and liberal author Gore Vidal. The two despised each other deeply, and the resulting back and forth would go down as one of the most vicious interactions in US television history.
“They really did despise each other” offers the late Christopher Hitchens, one of many authors, TV personalities, biographers and family members who form the talking heads of Best Of Enemies. And Hitchens is right. The story of Best Of Enemies is of two men, both the cornerstones of their respective ends of the political spectrum, coming together in an exercise that has their intense hatred of each other as its centrepiece. As Best Of Enemies makes clear throughout its running time, the ratings smash that ABC found themselves being responsible for was less about the exchange of political ideas, and more about two men whose disdain for each other ran so high that they would almost come to blows.
And it is a strong effort from the directors that brings this tale to life. Gordon and Neville, through a skilful curating of the existing source material, create a blended narrative that jumps all over the timelines of its subjects lives to create a sense of both closeness to the events in question and an idea of the larger setting of American political scene in the 60’s and 70’s, and the right mix of interviews with those involved, create a narrative that is both informative and immensely entertaining, really getting under the skin of both these men, and investigating just why they thought the things that they did, why they were both willing to engage in this titanic series of debates and why they hated each other so deeply. Much like Ron Howard’s Rush aimed to do, Best Of Enemies showcases two opposites whose drive to beat the other created truly legendary drama.
Poor ABC, described as a network that “would be fourth if there were four” networks instead of three, is depicted as being in desperate straits as the ‘68 conventions come around, unable to outdo their main competitors and willing to try anything to distance themselves from an apparent reputation of being the screwy younger brother of news coverage: shortly before the debates, the roof of the studio collapses, and the ABC heads can basically just shrug and get on with things. But the resulting exchanges goes far beyond a ratings competition.
From the moment Vidal, armed to the teeth with facts, figures and Buckley quotations he has hired a researcher to find, tears into his opponent, it’s clear that we are about to witness some wonderful television. Before then, both men have been very quickly and effectively set-up as the towering intellectuals that they were: Buckley the keen-minded editor of the conservative National Review, hobnobbing with the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, advocating nuclear weapons use in Vietnam and a respect for law and order (but not in a racial context, no sir) and Vidal as the quintessential east coast intellectual liberal, pushing the boundaries of social, political and sexual commentary in his op-eds, essays and novels, not least the much talked about Myra Breckenridge, whose infamy forms the backbone of Vidal’s notoriety at the time of the debates. Both men are failed politicians: Buckley in a run for the Mayoralty of New York, Vidal as an aspiring congressman (and, somewhat surprisingly, a man who once harboured series ambition to be President).
Both men are outspoken, admired and held up as shining examples of what the right and the left have to offer, in a time when America, between JFK and MLK’s assassinations, race riots, mass poverty and war in Vietnam, seemed to be tearing itself apart. The debates between the two, expertly framed between all of these points, take on a larger significance than just ruminating on Presidential hopefuls: as presented in the course of Best Of Enemies, it is a discussion on the kind of people Americans want to be, caught between the conservatism and moral crusade of Buckley and the much more open, unabashedly progressive views of Vidal.
The character of both men, not least their complete unwillingness to bend in the face of each other’s probing, is captured magnificently. Shades of grey abound, not least as Buckley flirtatiously compliments a young girl on her miniskirt during a debate on morals, the kind of creepy comment that elicits chills nowadays (added to by the sight of the man Buckley is sharing the stage with at the time: Woody Allen, laughing along). It’s a different time and place, when discourse was both more civil and fuller of terminology that is impossible to use nowadays. And there is something deeply amusing about a man like Vidal having few pictures in his home, with one being of the debates, featuring himself and a man he openly acknowledges it pains him to name.
The graphics are great, and the selected framing of the archival footage is great: there’s no mistaking the handsome old-beyond-his-time look of Vidal, or the toothy grin of Buckley, that has more than a passing resemblance to a preying shark. Fantastic narration of their personal remembrances come from Kelsey Grammar (Buckley) and John Lithgow (Vidal) and one wonders why the story of this interchange has not come to the screen before in the manner of, again, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. Meanwhile, outside the studios, protestors clash with police, bombs fall on Vietnam and the very societal structure of America looks like they are about to come crashing down, the context of the debates made achingly clear.
Watching the two spar back and forth in the debates, captured so wonderfully in the archive footage, is a rare treat, two well-spoken and intelligent men, sending verbal daggers at the other. Here are two intellectuals in every sense of the term, the kind of men who would, somewhat ironically, be derided as political commentators in the modern day and age, America is pointedly described as a country where intellectualism is a dirty word and where voters dislike the idea of a politicians who might actually be smarter than them. Vidal even wrote a play, later a film, about it, and Best Of Enemies reminds you of a time that might never be replicated again, when discourse of this type was more common when it came to politics, though with the terrible irony that it was the success of this series of debates that served as a prologue to an age of screeching point/counterpoint style political discussion, examples of which shown in Best Of Enemies eventually just merge into indecipherable noise, described accurately by Jon Stewart, in his amazing Crossfire appearance as “theatre, not debate”.
Vidal acknowledged what he and Buckley were creating before the debates were even over, helping to solidify the important of a projected image over genuine political discourse and the helpful exchange of ideas. Vidal openly discusses his intention, from the start of the exercise, to “expose” the kind of man that Buckley was, and gets defensive later in his life over accusations that he acted dishonestly in the debates. Buckley gave as good as he got as time went on, and once he got prepared and did his research, the repartee between the two gets an even more vicious dimension. But the end result is still harrowing: the prevalence of theatre over debate, a state of affairs that became so common so quickly following ABC’s series of debates, that it wasn’t long before such things were the subject of satire (Best Of Enemies including a nice clip of Saturday Night Live take on such things).
Such a reality lends a tinge of rancour and depression to the point that Best Of Enemies wants to make, but there is humour in there too, though sometimes of the gallows kind. One can’t help but appreciate Buckley’s wit even if his politics might be abhorrent: when one question from an audience asks why he never stands up on air, he thinks for a moment and replies that he is bogged down with “the weight of all I know”.
Best Of Enemies could have contained a bit more of the actual debates themselves – several are skipped over entirely – but it’s all worth it for the coverage of the penultimate encounter, the one where the explosion comes. Vidal can’t help himself anymore and, in a particularly spiteful exchange, refers to Buckley as a “crypto-fascist”. Buckley, a veteran of World War II and especially sensitive to taunts that conservatives of his type are fascistic, snaps, dubs Vidal a “queer” and threatens to punch him in the face.
At once both men are painted a certain way. Vidal, to me, seemed bullying and opportunistic, seeking what we might call today a “media moment” and not an intellectually honest debate. But Buckley, in threatening to “sock” Vidal in the manner that he does, grimacing with anger, looks like a lout. The debates are essentially over with the incident, bar a late epilogue, and the reaction to it – “The network shat itself” recalls one industry veteran – is almost as good as the actual event itself. Buckley is subsequently mortified by the exchange, Vidal arrogantly triumphant.
The fallout, that lasted several years between the two and turned ever more rancorous (and litigious), is discussed in some detail, but Best Of Enemies has already made its main point. The two men utterly loathed each other, and it’s almost refreshing to see a pair of political adversaries whose dislike for the position of the others is so plain. Both Vidal and Buckley believed that the values of the other were the worst possible thing for America, and would destroy the country in time, and both men would die still believing this, with Vidal’s longevity framed as almost a final insult, just so he could get the last word on Buckley: and boy is it a harsh one.
It is a pet peeve of mine to see political rivals act pally in “off” moments, especially in terms of referendums and the like: a “Congratulations” from the denizens of, say, the “No” camp in the recent SSM referendum, can only be viewed by me as a hollow insult, considering the dispute that we had. Politics is not some kind of competitive sport where we all shake hands at the end of the day, it’s a battleground where my beliefs and opinions do not mesh with yours, and see your beliefs and opinions as damaging to this country and its people. Seeing two men live this out and not waver from it, displaying a resoluteness and fortitude when it comes to sticking to their guns and rallying against the other side, is something that I like to see, and that is absent from the screeching masses of modern news television, especially in America, where all ideas of subtlety and restrained discourse have long since gone by the wayside.
Best Of Enemies might go a bit far on occasion – the debates certainly weren’t the only thing that influenced the rise of the current state of American political coverage, and they weren’t quite as era-defining as some make them out to be either – but it mostly stays true to its mission statement and simply lets the personalities at the heart of this two hander speak for themselves. The final criticisms of modern news media are searing, and as an examination of a possible origin point, Best Of Enemies is to be commended. Coming in at a refreshingly contracted 84 minutes, and featuring tonnes of wonderful stuff to ponder over, Best Of Enemies is certainly one of the better documentaries that I have viewed this year, and one that comes fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media).