Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s doc, “Best of Enemies,” portrays the captivating 1968 William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal debates during the nation’s two national political conventions with a level-headed keenness and appreciation for the American blood sport of politics.
This is a must-see for anyone seriously interested in our political history and the current “culture wars” afflicting our nation.
The story is a fascinating one and its makers make a persuasive case that these 1968 television newscasts influenced the manner and belligerence with which today’s TV “pundit” — a Hindi word meaning a wise man or teacher that is being seriously misused in the American vernacular — practices his or her craft on the airwaves.
The set-up is almost amusing.
ABC News was dead last in the old three-way ratings war in 1968. As its former news president William Sheehan deadpans in an interview, ABC could easily have been fourth in the ratings but there were only three networks in those days.
Unable to afford gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the web chose (not irresponsibly as a matter of fact) to devote 90 minutes of primetime to both conventions and — a Hail Mary pass — to hire two leading voices in American political discourse to debate the issues.
These were William F. Buckley Jr., a leading light of the conservative movement as founder of National Review magazine and host of the popular interview program “Firing Line,” and Gore Vidal, iconoclastic essayist and novelist with a rich political background that included a U.S.Senator grandfather (T. P. Gore) and a First Lady step-sister (Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy).
You do wonder if someone at ABC knew something. Like the fact these two individuals truly hated one another and the ideas they espoused, and that blood was likely to flow.
Well, that guy (or gal) was a genius.
Amusingly, both men would be called “out of touch” with the American public today. Each talked in full sentences with an erudition and elocution screaming East Coast patrician. These accents somewhat betrayed their pugilistic tendencies though.
In reality, Buckley, born to large middle-class family, learned English as his third language but did go to Yale. There, however, he felt he was shunned for his Roman Catholicism.
Vidal actually never went to university, a fact he was proud of. He did serve in the military, as did Buckley, and run for public office, as did Buckley as well. They both lost.
The film doesn’t try to pick a debate winner but rather look at the historical situation and its impact. But, in fact, there was a “winner.” I put that word in quotes since in this kind of free-form debate unguided by rules or regulations there can be no winner since the debate produced decidedly more heat than enlightenment.
Just as a sportswriter concentrates on strategies and angles of attack before a big game, the film focuses on the “pre-game” preparation: Vidal hired a researcher; Buckley, clearly overconfident, went sailing.
Vidal wanted to paint Buckley as the flag bearer for elitism, privileged and decidedly white rich males invested in racism, anti-Semitism, a violent foreign policy and need to domineer minorities, women and the world. Buckley, appalled at Vidal’s liberalism, wanted to paint his opponent into a corner of decadence and virulent anti-Americanism.
The two came out fighting first at the Republican National Convention in Miami. The better prepared Vidal drew blood but for the most part Buckley held his own. Two weeks later came the now infamous Democratic National Convention in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police stronghold of Chicago.
The smoke from the previous evening’s tear gas had barely cleared when the two debaters watched video of a vicious police crackdown on protestors, mostly demonstrating against the Vietnam war. They then resumed verbal combat.
Buckley would spend the rest of his life wishing he had chosen his next words more carefully. “Now listen, you queer,” he said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Well, chalk up two points for Vidal in his game plan — homophobic prejudice and threats of violence.
(The movie struggles unsuccessfully to sum up the upshot of all this but as a side note, by 1969, Buckley proposed to the editors of Esquire that he write a piece about his exchanges with Vidal. The magazine asked Vidal if he would like to write about Buckley, and it was agreed that the pieces would run in consecutive issues — Buckley’s in August 1969, Vidal’s in September.
A lawsuit ensued and Vidal won something of a pyrrhic victory: Buckley, told by a judge that he probably would not win if his suit went to court, agreed to let Esquire pay his legal fees and to issue an apology, after which he dropped his lawsuit.)
But in the end, who really won? Buckley saw his idol, Ronald Reagan, elected to the White House and thus he became a “king-maker” in the public eye. Vidal lived out his later life in relative obscurity in Italy and then California, his many historical novels, best seller at the time, mostly unread.
Plus former talk show host Dick Cavett, one of the film’s talking heads, makes the point that Vidal’s fuminations against Buckley actually contributed to Buckley becoming an TV celebrity.
In Buckley’s day it was “law and order” as code for the quest to block civil rights and anti-war agitation; today it’s “protect the border” as a wink-and-nod at immigration phobia and “take back America” to counter a black president and now a potential woman in the White House.
Neville (Oscar winner for “Twenty Feet from Stardom”) and Gordon (“Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story”) are better known for their docs about music so it’s odd that this film’s music is the weakest thing about it.
The makers seem convinced that nearly ever moment needs the accompanying sounds of old music. While drowning out no words, the soundtrack is mostly annoying.
As the movie nears it close, it makes the case that the takeaway from these fast-and-furious debates proved a negative one. The high ratings Buckley vs. Vidal received did not turn television toward more erudite political discourse.
Quite the contrary. The TV industry decided that “highly viewable” would always trump highly illuminating. And so it has.
Opens: Los Angeles, New York July 31, 2015 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: Tremolo, Media Ranch Productions
Directors: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Producers: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Clif Philips
Directors of photography: David Leonard, Graham Willoughby, Mark Schwartzbard
Music: Jonathan Kirkscey
Editors: Aaron Wickenden, Eileen Meyer
No rating, 87 minutes