Focusing on the tense, dynamic progress of the infamous TV debates between two antagonizing American intellectuals, documentary film “Best of Enemies” observes their turbulent era which ironically mirrors the current sociopolitical status of the American society at present. Through their fierce verbal matches in front of the camera, the documentary gives us insights on the schism between conservatism and liberalism which was already growing there even before their debates began, and it is compelling to watch the moments when these two fascinating figures brought the best and the worst out of each other.
It was 1968 August, and the American society had been stirred and shaken by many social issues including the Vietnam War, and the circumstance became more tumultuous as its two major political parties were about to hold their National Conventions for choosing their candidates for the upcoming 1968 Presidential Election. Fed up with their country’s continuing failures, American people demanded changes in one way or another (isn’t it familiar?), and everyone’s attention was accordingly drawn to who would be eventually chosen as the candidate in the Republican and Democratic Parties, respectively.
Around that time, there were only three (!) television networks in US, and ABC was in the humiliating position of No. 3 (remember that fictional television network in “Network” (1976) was said to be No. 4 in its field?). While NBC had Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and CBS had Walter Cronkite for the full coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, ABC did not have anyone equivalent to them, so there came one seemingly nice idea; they would get two commentators in opposite positions together and then they would just let these two guys talk and discuss over two big political events which were going to affect the next four years of the country.
And there were two people right for the job. William F. Buckley Jr., a brilliant author who founded influential conservative magazine National Review, had been one of the most prominent voices of conservatism, and he was also close to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who surely returned the favor to his good old supporter when he became the US president later. Gore Vidal, an erudite writer who was known well for his novels and other writings, had openly shown his liberal ideas on many subjects including sex and politics, and his novel “Myra Breckinridge”, which was made into the 1970 film starring Raquel Welch, was simply sensational for its daring satiric depiction of sexual roles and sexuality.
Even before their TV debates, there had been a considerable amount of animosity between Buckley and Vidal. Vidal represented everything Buckley disdained, and Buckley represented everything Vidal despised. While they actually had many common things between them as two ambitious intellectuals who grew up in each own prestigious background, they were so different from each other that one of the interviewees in the film joked that it was like the encounter between matter and antimatter when they sat together for their debates.
When their first round started with the Republican National Convention held in Miami, Florida during early August, Vidal was fully prepared to throw jabs and punches at Buckley, so he immediately went after Buckley as soon as they were on air. Although he was clearly surprised because he did not see that coming, Buckley rebounded to his competitive self during the next round, and that was just the beginning of a series of intense tug-of-war moments to be unfolded between them.
Deftly mixing the archival footage of Buckley and Vidal’s debates along with other archival footage clips and various interviewees including Buckley’s authorized biographer Sam Tanenhaus and late Christopher Hitchens, the directors/writers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville generate a gripping narrative which eventually culminates to the moment when the tension between Buckley and Vidal finally reached to the critical point. As the Democratic National Convention was being held in Chicago during late August, there were violent clashes between demonstrators and the Chicago Police Department, and Buckley and Vidal argued with each other more aggressively than before while talking about what was happening in the city. When one of them failed to contain his anger toward the other in the end, it was certainly something to be remembered by them as well as millions of American people who were watching them on TV.
And their conflict was continued even after that. Hating each other’s guts more than ever, they sued each other at one point, and poor Esquire Magazine was unfortunately sandwiched between them for publishing their opposing articles. Vidal, who died in 2012, managed to have the last words when Buckley died in 2008, but, as bitterly pointed out in the film, both of them already belonged to the past around that point. Although Buckley and Vidal are not available for comments here, their writings are respectively read by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow in the film, and Grammer and Lithgow did a commendable job of conveying to us the spiky mutual hostility between Buckley and Vidal.
With its vivid, riveting presentation of one memorable TV event during that volatile summer of 1968, “Best of Enemies” reminds us of how the trend set by Buckley and Vidal has been more problematic during recent years. There are far more television networks now in US besides NBC, ABC, and CBS, and American TV has been louder than ever thanks to countless pundits and commentators with polarizing views. People say we should be open to many different views, but, folks, what good can that be if there is not any real productive exchanges for finding common ground?