Best of Enemies Dir. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: political documentary
Others: 20 Feet From Stardom

Best of Enemies is an important documentary, but not for the reasons the filmmakers would have you believe. Focusing specifically on the 10 debates that took place during both the Republican and Democrat conventions in 1968 between William F. Buckley, the godfather of modern conservatism, and Gore Vidal, the non-Kennedy stand-in for suave, upper crust liberalism, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) attempt to lay out a time capsule showing how the two core belief systems at play back then are virtually the same as those today. While Buckley’s xenophobic, homophobic, and extremist laissez-faire politics would feel right at home at Fox News, Vidal’s slick, holier-than-thou self-assurance would have granted him at least a weekly spot on MSNBC. But this tête-à-tête of clashing ideals, paradigms and lifestyles, while edgy at the time of its airing in 1968, is not important in its historical value today because, as the film suggests, it mirrors the clashing of red state vs. blue state ideals and the god-fearing government-hating Republican vs. the privileged, over-educated liberal, but because it shows mainstream news’ inability to move beyond the oversimplified two party dialectic that has virtually ground our nation to a halt.

The debates themselves are entertaining to watch, not so much for the deep, thoughtful political philosophies as for the pure gamesmanship on display between Buckley and Vidal. At the time of the debates, ABC was a distant third in the ratings behind NBC and CBS and needed a quick and, more importantly, cheap way to compete with the seemingly infinite breadth of coverage the other networks would be giving to the conventions. Because of the duo’s eloquent, often amusing, verbal sparring, the network’s ratings ploy worked tremendously. Gordon and Neville frame the event as monumental precisely because of the sharp ratings boost it gave ABC and the subsequent mano-y-mano programs it gave birth to, most notably the long-running Crossfire. Sadly, for a film at least partially about the impact of evening news and political coverage, little importance is given to the actual political content as compared to the results — ratings and sheer entertainment value are held far above the actual intellectual value of the debates themselves and the filmmakers’ values are unfortunately co-aligned with that of the mass media.

The prime example of is in the extended time and enormous weight is given to the typically composed Buckley’s now-infamous explosive verbal assault of Vidal. After being called a “crypto-Nazi,” Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and warned him that he’d “sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” The fact that this was rather graphic language for primetime television at the time and that it appeared to haunt Buckley for the rest of his life may be true, but the filmmakers’ insistence on making this the pivotal point in the film exposes the narrowness and shortsightedness of their own perspective on the events they are supposedly examining. It is undoubtedly a shocking and entertaining moment to watch, but that the crucial moment of 10-day debate between two intellectual powerhouses is located in the 5-second span when one man lost his cool rather than a thought or idea tells you everything that is wrong with Best of Enemies point of view. The director’s unwillingness to look into the true intricacies of Buckley and Vidal’s political beliefs or the subsequent negative effects these heated debates had and continue to have on the increasingly divisive yet vapid political rhetoric of mainstream news, makes it amount to little more than an entertaining but fluffy op-ed piece. Much of the footage is worth seeing at least once, but the end product is of a quality you’d more often find on the History Channel than in a movie theater.

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