How do you follow up an Oscar-winning film about backup singers? By making one about a series of political debates that arguably, radically changed the political discourse and how networks cover convention and election coverage. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon are the men behind Best of Enemies, a film that centres on a series of 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr – often called the father of modern conservatism that served as a pre-cursor to Reaganism – and Gore Vidal, the radical leftist novelist, essayist, historian, and intellectual.
Originally envisioned as a ratings stunt for slumping 3rd place network ABC, the ten debates featured a variety of ad-libs, wisecracks, ad-hominem attacks, verbal warfare and mudslinging. Both men, particularly Buckley, where well-known as great orators and debaters, understood the power of television, and relished the opportunity to make themselves the centre of attention.
Though the film is largely made-up of archival footage of the debates, there are also interviews with current commentators and friends and colleagues of both men including Dick Cavett, Brooke Gladstone, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Additionally, personal debate notes are read by actors Kelsey Grammar (Buckley) and John Lithgow (Vidal). The peak was reached when unprompted, Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi, enraged Buckley ranted and insinuated that Vidal was a “queer”. (the sexuality of both men was often questioned). This exchange seemed to haunt Buckley till his death.
Both Buckley and Vidal were characters. Although my personal sympathies and ideologies are aligned much closer to the latter than the former, one does not need to try very hard to see the appeal of a man like Buckley. He had an almost televangelist vibe to him. In many ways, he was. He was everywhere, in print as the founder of National Review, on television as a commentator, and on radio as much the same.
Not to be outdone, Vidal wrote dozens of novels, including the wildly salacious Myra Breckenridge, which many – including Buckley himself – denounced as Pornographic. He dabbled in essay writing, criticism, and literary non-fiction. Well-researched and well-prepared, Vidal clearly knew what he was up against.
Clearly the stunt worked, as ABCs ratings went through the roof and they forever altered the way in television news networks cover political conventions today. (Though it has been saturated to no end by MSNBC, CNN, and FoxNews). The epilogue of the film, sees current commentators discussing the legacy of the debates and how it to led to the sensationalism of media.
All-in-all, Best of Enemies is a great exploration into the minds, and lives, of two political firebrands. It shows us the birth of a political ideology, the lead-up to the often inane, round-the-clock footage of virtually any big news story, and in more subtle ways, the decline of the American Public Intellectual.
Originally released at Sundance in January, 2015, Best of Enemies will have its major release in July.