Written by Scott Blitstein
In 1968, ABC News ran a series of debates featuring William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to air during the presidential conventions. At the time, ABC was running third in the news ratings and hoped the debates would help spark interest in their coverage. Buckley, the conservative and publisher of The National Review, and Gore, a noted author and liberal would verbally spar during their segments. Best of Enemies documents these debates.
Because of the political nature of the film and subject matter, and the polarization that still exists today, I think people will view this documentary differently given their age and political leanings. I was born in 1968 and had only a cursory knowledge of the debaters and no knowledge of the debates. I was familiar with the 1968 conventions however, the protests here in Chicago, the whole world was watching. Going in with only a little background, I tried to view it as subjectively as I could, focusing on each debaters’ arguments and style, trying to differentiate between the arguments and the arguers.
I think Best of Enemies works well as a historical documentation of the events. There is an abundance of background information presented about both men and the time at which the debates occurred. Interview footage with biographers, family, friends, and other players at the time help build a good framework for the placement of this story. It also helps give a perspective necessary to really understand the overall time and place, which are really important. This was the time of Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, a time of unrest that was very divisive and that backdrop makes the importance of these debates much more amplified. Voiceovers by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal work really well.
Best of Enemies also tries to put into perspective the changes in the way that our news gets reported, the rise of the pundits, the nature of opposition in the presentation of events and opinions, and the role that these debates had in that process. The personality of the presenter becomes equally important as the opinion they hold or the news they are presenting. Each of us is left with the opportunity to decide if that shift was positive or detrimental.
I am sure it wasn’t an accident that much of the footage seemed to mirror the same sort of discussions we are still having today: homosexuality, racism, poverty, and income disparity. Put different faces on these men and the topics of debate are strikingly similar to what is being discussed in our current political climate, particularly as we approach our own presidential elections. At one point, I had to just pause the movie to really think about the fact that here we are 48 years later, and how much or little has really changed?
I mentioned verbally sparring earlier and in many ways watching Best of Enemies is like watching a boxing match, or more likely, a street fight. Each night is a round and you can see both men circling, quick jabs, looking for weakness, and hoping to land that knockout punch. When Buckley actually threatened to punch Vidal at one point, you could tell how personally these men were taking this battle.
At the end, I found myself fascinated at the discourse and while I may have sided with Vidal about many of the issues, I found myself really disliking both men. The debates were much more personal than issue based. They seemed to attack the other for having a particular opinion with very little discussion about the basis of the opinions. There was also a certain arrogance and elitism that each man had, a sense of intellectual superiority over each other, and the audience.
Best of Enemies manages to hit that sweet spot of being both informative and entertaining. It’s also very thought provoking and I hope people will take the opportunity to watch this if they have the chance. Learning about the past is still probably the best way to understand our present.
The DVD features a good hour or more of bonus interview footage with the directors of the film and notables such as Dick Cavett. If you’re looking for even more background and opinion than presented in the film, then you would find this interesting. I found it hit or miss but for completists it’s nice to have available.