'Best of Enemies': Sundance Review

Best of Enemies
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A terrific account of the seminal William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal TV debates in 1968.

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's wonderful documentary convincingly argues that the Buckley-Vidal debates marked the beginning of the end of the gray days of "objective" TV news.

For American viewers of an intellectual/historical persuasion, there could scarcely be any documentary more enticing, scintillating and downright fascinating than Best of Enemies. A sort of brainy equivalent of the Ali-Frazier boxing matches of the same general era, the televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the two national political conventions in the convulsive year of 1968 comprised a watershed event in several ways, all of which are reflected in this outstanding documentary that will prove riveting both to those who have general memories of watching the broadcasts at the time and to younger political buffs who may never before have seen these titans of articulation and elocution in action.

No matter anyone's specific reactions to the views either man expresses here, the film generates a palpable and profound gone-with-the-wind sense of loss stemming from the indisputable fact that there are no intellectual pundits around today anywhere near on the level of Buckley and Vidal. Part of it is the way they spoke, in patrician, mid-Atlantic accents, in continuous long streams of purposefully and wittily chosen words, with an awareness of the classics and historical precedent and plenty of experience in debate. The only one who came after who could have held his own with them was Christopher Hitchens, who appears here commenting on the debates, but now he's gone, too.

Co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon are best known for their work on modern musical subjects. But they also know what they're doing on political turf and provide excellent context for the main event and ample background material on both men.

Both men came from American aristocracy, but with qualifications. Buckley, for whom English was his third language, was never entirely accepted at Yale and other WASP bastions because of his Catholicism, while Vidal, who grew up wealthy and whose grandfather was U.S. senator, oddly never went to college. Both served in the military, published fiction as well as nonfiction, and ran for public office but lost.

By 1968, Buckley was well known as the editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine he created, National Review, and as host of the political PBS talk show Firing Line. That same year, Vidal's celebrity had risen to new notorious heights as the author of the gender-bending best-seller Myra Breckinridge. If there was anything the two men might have agreed upon, they no doubt would have found a way to undo it.

Great vintage footage and excellent commentators set the stage for the two conventions, which took place in the immediate wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations and during a peak in anti-Vietnam War protests. The Republicans designed things in Miami so that protestors would have a tough time assembling anywhere near the conventional center, while Democratic boss Mayor Richard J. Daley assured that law and order would prevail in Chicago.

Inviting Buckley and Vidal to debate was something of a desperation move on the part of ABC-TV. A distant third in overall ratings, the network's news division also lagged far behind CBS and NBC. Both of the leaders made a point of covering the conventions gavel to gavel, so ABC decided to try to raise its profile by limiting floor coverage to 90 minutes and devoting a half-hour each night to the guests' perspectives on what was happening. Both men received $10,000 for their efforts. Vidal reportedly prepared heavily for the occasion, while Buckley showed up with the intention of basically winging it.

Catastrophe struck right off the bat when ABC's temporary studio in Miami collapsed. While Ronald Reagan staged his unsuccessful attack on Richard Nixon downstairs, the two commentators entertainingly crossed ideological swords on the causes of the "fault lines" that had opened up in American society. What the excerpts from the five Miami debates lack is much direct comment on what was actually happening at the convention.

Two weeks later, everyone reconvened in Chicago for what soon became known as the "fortress convention" due to the enormous police presence occasioned by the hordes of protestors in the city. Great footage shows Vidal being joined by Paul Newman and Arthur Miller to check things out first-hand, Haskell Wexler was in town shooting Medium Cool, and there are even rather speciously used clips from what is misleadingly referring to as the Vidal-written Ben-Hur to illustrate his comparison of the American empire to that of ancient Rome.

The first three Chicago debates were lively enough, but it was the fourth one — and ninth overall — that still lives in infamy. Discussion of the riots let slip the men's normally cool demeanors, and Vidal got off a line in which he called Buckley a "pro- or crypto-Nazi." The latter became visibly angered — the image is repeated several times, and slowly — and he responded with, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face, and you'll stay plastered."

Buckley was rattled over having lost his cool and apologized for the "queer" remark on national television, although both men subsequently wrote long, vituperative articles about the incident and lawsuits went on for years. As Hitchens remarks, "They really did despise one another."

But the crowning touch of Best of Enemies is the way it convincingly argues that the Buckley-Vidal debates marked the beginning of the end of the gray days of "objective" TV news. The nation as a whole used to share common pictures and received basically the same information, all of it conveyed in calm, dry tones. Now, we are flooded with countless ways of looking at and interpreting the news, and most often it's presented with an ideological slant, with yelling and screaming added for seasoning. As the film sees it, this seismic change can all be traced back to Buckley-Vidal and it's great to see how it all began.

Production companies: Tremolo, Media Ranch Productions
Directors: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Producers: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Clif Philips
Directors of photography: David Leonard, Graham Willoughby, Mark Schwartzbard
Editors: Aaron Wickenden, Eileen Meyer
Music: Jonathan Kirkscey

No rating, 88 minutes