Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: Best of Enemies (2015)

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Several months ago I watched the documentary Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia (2013). Then I watched it again. And again. And again. I was mesmerized by this brilliant documentary as well its fascinating subject. It was timely, filmed shortly before Vidal’s death in 2012, powerful and illuminating with almost unfettered access to Vidal himself as well as his friends and colleagues. In that documentary we see some footage of the infamous William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal debates. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about their debates as well as their vitriolic hatred for each other. That’s when Best of Enemies (2015) stepped in.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville and released by Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies tells the story of Buckley and Vidal’s debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions and broadcast by ABC News. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was a staunch conservative and Vidal an unapologetic liberal. Both men were highly intelligent and well-spoken commentators. They both had failed at getting into public office, Buckley ran for Mayor in 1965 and Vidal for Congress in 1960. They recognized television as a powerful platform to deliver their political ideologies and both accepted ABC News’ invitation to debate with each other on live television. What resulted was explosive and would forever change TV news and the lives of both men.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Buckley and Vidal hated each other. A lot. In the opening scene of the documentary we see archival footage from the 1970s of Gore Vidal. He’s giving the cameras a tour of his stunning home, nestled on a cliff in Ravello, Italy. Vidal takes the camera crew into the bathroom where a framed collection of photographs from the infamous debates hangs above his bathtub. Vidal snidely says of Buckley “he’s a well-known right-wing commentator whose name seldom passes my lips.” Buckley didn’t like to talk about Vidal either. ABC News approached him first about doing a debate with a liberal commentator during the conventions. He said he would not want to debate with a communist or Gore Vidal. They gave him Vidal.

When Buckley lost his cool. BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Best of Enemies stitches together footage from the ten debates, ABC news coverage, some of it unedited, interviews with a wide variety of talking heads as well as archival footage of both Buckley and Vidal. Both sides are represented as equally as possible however things don’t turn out as well for Buckley who lost his cool in one of the last debates. It’s one of the most infamous moments in TV news history. Vidal calls Buckley a Crypto-Nazi and Buckley calls Vidal a queer and threatens to sock him in the face. That moment is pivotal in the documentary as well as the lives of both men.

Gore Vidal and Paul Newman in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Classic film fans, especially ones interested in the culture of the 1960s, will be fascinated with this documentary. It provides a lot of context of what was going at the time politically and culturally. Gore Vidal was no stranger to Hollywood. He was a screenwriter and novelist and his films include The Catered Affair (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), The Best Man (1964), Myra Breckenridge (1970) and Caligula (1979). In 1968, his novel Myra Breckenridge had just been published and was hot topic. Clips from the film adaptation can be seen in the documentary as well as clips from Ben-Hur, Caligula and The Best Man. There is an extended reference to Sunset Blvd. (1950) too. Classic film enthusiasts will spot familiar faces such as Raquel Welch and Henry Fonda and there is also archival footage of Paul Newman and Arthur Miller at the Democratic national convention. Newman was good friends with Vidal and was often in the studio during the debates.


The filmmakers chose some excellent interviewees for the documentary. My favorites include Dick Cavett (talk show host), Richard Wald (former president of NBC News), George Merlis (ABC publicist), Christopher Hitchens (political essayist who passed in 2011), James Wolcott (Vanity Fair), Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Buckley) and Reid Buckley (Buckley’s brother). I also really loved the commentary from Brooke Gladstone of NPR who put the debates in the context of the history of TV news and John McWhorter of Columbia University who analyzed the language and the importance of the discourse. Fun fact: at one point Buckley exclaims “this is balderdash now!” It was also neat to listen to actors John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer narrate written pieces from Buckley and Vidal.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 Here are some of my favorite quotes from the documentary:

“Networks, did they deal in controversy? No. Did they invite controversy? No. They were in the center. They were cementers of idea not disruptors of idea.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“Bill Buckley was the first modern conservative intellectual to see that ideological debates were cultural debates. And what he did was to put conservativism on the march and that’s the creation of the movement we have today.” Sam Tanenhaus

“ABC was the Budget Car Rental of TV news” – Frank Rich, New York Magazine

“This has always been an anti-intellectual country. These days anybody who spoke like those two men in public would be seen to be heartless.” – John McWhorter, Columbia University

“The network nearly shat.” – Dick Cavett on the Buckley-Vidal incident

“Argument is sugar and the rest of us are flies.” – Richard Wald, NBC News

“More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas they’re not living in the same place.” – Uncredited

The reason I was most drawn to this documentary is my fascination with Gore Vidal. He is arguably one of the most interesting public figures of the 20th century. This documentary satiated my interested and piqued a new one about his rival Buckley.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I could go on for a long time about this documentary but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Instead I want to give you a plan of action. First, watch Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia on Netflix Instant. Second, do a little research on William F. Buckley Jr. to keep things balanced. Third, find out which theater near you is showing Best of Enemies and go see it! This documentary premiered at Sundance to much critical acclaim. It was the opening film for the recent AFI Docs festival. You can watch at select theatres starting tomorrow. Visit the official site for the schedule.

Summary: Best of Enemies (2015) is a powerful documentary depicting a tumultuous time in political history, a turning point in TV news and highly contentious relationship between two intellectual equals William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. This film entertains as much as it provides history and context. I highly recommend it.



Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for sending me a screener to review!

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