Screens

Review: Best of Enemies

How pitting Vidal and Buckley against each other on TV became the standard for political debate

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 4 stars

Argument is sugar, and we swarm around it like flies. So says former NBC News president Richard Wald in regard to our obsession with the sort of debates explored in the documentary Best of Enemies. The film revolves around the famous feud between political pundits Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. It feeds our urge to be flies on the wall in the midst of such a fight. And it sheds light on why we all share that dark desire.

Best of Enemies suggests that we wouldn't have The Daily Show or The O'Reilly Factor without the televised debates between Vidal and Buckley in the summer of 1968, during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. ABC pitted the men against each other in the hopes of increasing its lethally low ratings. The network was so unsuccessful that those in the industry joked, "If the president put the Vietnam War on ABC, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks."

Vidal and Buckley emerged on TV like a two-headed dragon, Vidal being the liberal brain and Buckley the hardheaded conservative — much like Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly. Neither one was an everyman. Both spoke like stuffy intellectuals. But when they joined forces, they revealed their raw, primal selves. Therein lies the thrill of political theater — watching polished pundits get dirty, seeing them pushed off their pedestals and onto the ground with the rest of us.

A major strength of the film is its honesty about Vidal and Buckley having a hard time relating to average viewers because of their backgrounds. Both born into wealth, Vidal was the haughty author of several bulky political books, and Buckley founded the elitist magazine National Review. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville don't pretend that these men weren't off-putting in an effort to make a puff piece about them. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the heated, animalistic arguments between the men, which left audiences utterly entranced at the time.

One of Vidal and Buckley's discussions resulted in the kind of outrageous personal attack that would get millions of hits on YouTube if it happened today. In the heat of the moment — and unfortunately on live television — Buckley freaked out at Vidal, slinging slurs and threatening to hurt him. Gordon and Neville dig under the sensationalist surface of this incident and show how it haunted both men. It's refreshing that the film doesn't merely revel in their entertaining anger; it explores the inner turmoil behind it — the humanity amid the hysterics.

Best of Enemies moves at a blistering pace, buzzing with the same uncompromising intensity as Vidal and Buckley's debates. It may take you a while to warm up to these guys — they're hardly the kind of heroes that moviegoers like to root for. But just as their debates did nearly 50 years ago, this film sucks us into the spectacle of arguments turning intellectuals into animals.


Showing at Keystone Art

Rated: R


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