Best of Enemies
Gore Vidal and William F Buckley's intellectual rivalry is explored in a gripping doc
Co-directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies is a fascinating account of the televised debates between politically opposed intellectual heavyweights Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, that aired on ABC during the 1968 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Aside from making gripping television, the debates had a powerful effect, both on the lives of the two men and on the future of televised political coverage.
Using a combination of extensive archive footage and a line-up of insightful talking heads, this superbly assembled doc provides plenty of context and background to the debates, including the fact that ratings at the time were dominated by NBC and CBS's blanket coverage of the conventions themselves, so ABC's decision to air the debates was a desperate move on their part.
The film takes us through the debates chronologically, with Buckley and Vidal flinging deliciously barbed jibes at each other throughout, making it the intellectual equivalent of Ali and Foreman's 'Rumble in the Jungle'. The killer blow comes in their ninth face-off, after both men have witnessed horrific scenes of police beating protesters outside the Democrats' Chicago convention, when Vidal calls Buckley a 'pro- or crypto-Nazi' and Buckley famously snaps, responding, 'Now listen, you queer – stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.'
Their feud continued throughout their lives, with Buckley's outburst evidently haunting him for years, while Vidal delighted in his perceived victory. Neville and Gordon explore the lingering impact of the debates on both men, masterfully brought to life through the contributions of John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer (both off-screen, both note-perfect), who read colourful extracts from Vidal and Buckley's voluminous writings.
Ultimately, the film ends on a sobering note, pointing out that the debates can be held directly responsible for what passes for political discourse on US TV today (i.e. blowhards shouting at each other on Fox News). Watching the modern day clips, you keenly feel the loss of both Vidal and Buckley, although this riveting, impressively crafted and thought-provoking film at least provides a fitting tribute.
Selected release from Fri 24 Jul.