REVIEW: Best of Enemies [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: July 31st, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Participant Media / Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
Writer(s): Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville

“The way to end the Vietnam War was to put it on ABC and it’d be canceled in thirteen weeks”

It was the birth of punditry and epitome of television as theater: William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal head-to-head wherein they themselves respectively became Conservatism and Liberalism for the whole country to watch. Did they talk about the National Conventions as they were ultimately hired to do? Not really. Did they feed the “unconventional” nature of ABC’s hour-and-a-half-a-day coverage as opposed to the wall-to-wall talking heads of competitors NBC and CBS? Yes. Buckley and Vidal provided America with entertaining stand-ins for the issues at-hand to laugh at and side with without true input on the candidates. As Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville‘s documentary Best of Enemies purports, they fought to show America who was the best man. Facts were replaced by emotion and the news was forever changed.

This document of those 1968 debates alongside the histories of both men before and after is a great piece of filmmaking that entertains while educating. To hear them talk and more-or-less prophesize the state of the media today is simultaneously amazing and disheartening because we see how we made it so. Just today someone was complaining about Hollywood reboots and remakes and I had to explain that it’s our fault because we keep buying tickets. If those types of films made zero money opening weekend the industry would have to alter their path. We’ve created this monster and help it endure and the same goes for the 24-hour news cycle of overblown exaggeration and screaming. Buckley vs. Vidal earned a ratings explosion and everyone embraced repeating that success.

The film also knows its audience—or at least the interviewees do. A couple talk about how quickly Vidal and Buckley’s resonance in political spheres and pop culture dissipated as the years went on and they aren’t wrong. I’m pretty sure I never heard of Buckley before watching this movie and had I seen a photo would have thought him Hugh Grant‘s father. As for Vidal, the name was familiar but I possessed no knowledge of the man beyond such recognition. I’m therefore glad Gordon and Neville went back to explain their pasts and how their cultivated identities positioned them to become bizarro versions of the other. They were both elitist white Americans with affected dialects sounding more British than anything else who immensely enjoyed the camera’s reach.

There’s no way either, as they are portrayed throughout the film, would have said no to appearing on ABC to debate and exude obvious hatred for the other. No way at all. This stuff was their bread-and-butter and they were excited about the prospect to go out on the line and seek victory over the other in political ideals and personal pride. The confident smugness in how they speak about the other—their diary accounts of the period read by Kelsey Grammer (Buckley) and John Lithgow (Vidal)—is invigorating and spot-on. Vidal knew Buckley didn’t prepare for these things and made sure he had ammunition to pounce. And then when Buckley familiarized himself with the format it was all a matter of who would lose his composure first.

Sound familiar? It should because that’s exactly what today’s TV hosts do. It’s less about speaking intelligently on a topic to hear the other side and maybe even learn something new as much as it is to incite. Look at the TV primary debates with moderators poking and prodding for reactions. As the filmmakers say it, the eventual live explosion of profane slurs that resulted from Buckley and Vidal’s tete a tete opened news producers’ eyes to their dramatic potential. What happens when you get under the carefully manufactured façade and really strike a nerve, though? Do you get the real man underneath or a hasty, feral creature intentionally backed into a corner of whom nothing can truly be taken objectively? Objectivity in news officially died in 1968.

What’s depicted is a war of politics on live TV with anointed generals leading the charge. It’s Far Right versus Far Left personally attacking the other rather than their party with gleeful grins and embellished shock and it’s as captivating now as it surely was then for someone like me who wasn’t born to experience it. The parallel to today is uncanny with current news personalities being actors with good elocution and stubborn viewpoints yelling louder and louder until nothing is said. But that’s what the American public wants. They aren’t listening to the issues or coming up with ideologies. They’re watching to see which voice they like more, auditioning celebrities for the job of political figurehead. It’s “I like him,” not “I agree with what he’s saying.”

Best of Enemies never shies from this reality, ensuring we see both subjects with equal blame and recklessness. Whether there was guilt or regret for how things escalated by one or the other is inconsequential because the damage was already done. Once the people were able to embrace the relish with which each volleyed slanderous barbs at the other, they were hooked. Buckley and Vidal openly admit the farcical nature of what they did and continued their war through litigious means afterwards. They were performing and they delivered on their promise. Executed to perfection, America probably voted for Buckley or Vidal that November in the guise of Nixon and Humphrey. And now we no longer bring our brains to election coverage every four years. Popcorn is more appropriate.

[1] William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
[2] William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
[3] Gore Vidal and Paul Newman in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

One Thought to “REVIEW: Best of Enemies [2015]”

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