Best of Enemies
dir. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
I first read about the televised debates of William F Buckley vs Gore Vidal during the 1968 presidential campaign in Christopher Bram’s appreciation of twentieth century gay writers Eminent Outlaws (great read, very informative). Amongst covering Gore Vidal’s history as author of historical epics and some of the first modern gay literature and exploring his unsuccessful political aspirations, a seemingly overlarge portion of his narrative surrounded these debates. Running rapidfire through their spar, Bram describes a tense, generational battle of political opposites. The importance and intensity was lost on me, and the event drifted into my general knowledge that Gore Vidal commented a lot.
This year, Best of Enemies debuted to strong reviews, but my previous reading of Bram’s synopsis did not make me leap for the movie. Now that it’s appeared on Netflix, my enjoyment of Vidal led me to press play. The truth behind this story is it needs to be heard. The gifted orators Vidal and Buckley, along with a barely noticed ABC News, created something new with these televised debates from such haughtily opposed rivals. The conservative Buckley distributed The National Review spreading his conservative blueprint, and Gore Vidal challenged sexual norms and pushed for liberalism with every move. Both of them were highly educated and well spoken men who were usually out of touch with standard Americans until they were butting political agendas.
Additionally, the torment that surrounded the conventions created more need-to-see footage. Class and race riots occurred outside the Nixon and Reagan filled venues. Police violence, still ever prevalent in the news, ensued throughout the coverage, prominently focused on young African Americans. Explicit coverage, and the duo’s commentary, combined to accentuate the newness of these debates and the chaotic times surrounding them. These debates would lead to how news, particularly political news, is covered to this day. Seeing and reading is not believe; hearing is believing.
Writers and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville provide ample coverage of the debates with intermixed interviews from those who knew Vidal and Buckley, both of whom have died. These men knew everyone before the debates, and everyone watched them during the debates. So many facts arise surrounding these all too similar yet opposed men. The explosions and aftermath were shocking to audiences, but the men’s careers continued to survive after this breakthrough ABC event.
Though many likely don’t know of Vidal or Buckley’s work, both of these men are intriguing, diametrically opposed foes. Watching them battle greatly exceeds any recount in a few chapters of a book, even a well written book. The adept filmmaking provides relevance to today’s audience, as one does not need to have been in the 60’s to determine a value in this faceoff. So much persists in today’s culture, and much political discourse can be traced back to this time. Maybe somewhere between, some answers can be discerned.
3.75 out of 4