Best of Enemies

(2015) *** 1/2 R
87 min. Magnolia Pictures. Directors: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon. Cast: Dick Cavett, Kelsey Grammer, John Lithgow, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, Brooke Gladstone, Noam Chomsky.

/content/films/4820/1.jpgRed states and blue states. Fox News and MSNBC. Political gridlock. Were conservative standard bearer William F. Buckley and liberal lion Gore Vidal the canaries in the coal mine? The allegorical significance of these proto-pundits forms the convincing premise of Best of Enemies, a documentary film by Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash’s America) and Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom).

The stuff of Best of Enemies is the stuff of network-television legend. Back when TV meant solely the Big Three (NBC, CBS and ABC), the American Broadcasting Company was the also-ran, the butt of ratings-basement jokes. In the election year of 1968, ABC had nothing to lose as they pondered counter-programming coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. And so it was that the network news division lined up Buckley and the one individual he reportedly once said he’d refuse to share a stage with, Vidal, for two weeks worth of nightly debates timed to the conventions. As Gordon and Neville frame it, here was the beginning of the point-counterpoint paradigm and the seed of the shouting-match political panel model to which so many “news” programs adhere today.

Like most arresting documentaries, Best of Enemies succeeds on the strength of its centerpiece footage: the ten bouts between Buckley and Vidal. The filmmakers may be guilty of leaving out most of the bygone (or is it?) political substance of the debates—which they conclude is beside the point of well-matched ideological pugilists fascinating in their own right and as a duo—but the remainder showcases the telling (and ironically mirrored) demeanors of these cult-of-personality cultural leaders, diametrically opposed as hawk and sociopolitical progressive but peas in a pod as privileged sons, the effete elite. Both men escaped boarding-school boundaries to become self-made men, equally capable of refinement and cruelty, who failed in electoral bids (Buckley for mayor of New York City, Vidal for positions in the House and Senate) and succeeded in celebrity.

And what debates they were, made for rubbernecking, and climaxing in an infamous, still-shocking tit-for-tat personal attack. Gordon and Neville effectively pace out the clips, interspersing bits of Buckley and Vidal’s writings (narrated by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow, respectively) and well-selected talking heads (Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Brooke Gladstone, et al) who parse the personalities and the social implications. While using the debates as primary evidence of character, the filmmakers go further in exploring how the men’s antipathy for each other knew no bounds by recounting the men’s latter-day obsessions with the debates and a nasty, protracted lawsuit-countersuit.
Like the debates it concerns, Best of Enemies entertains to a degree, enlightens to another, and asks us to ponder the relative merits of polar political ideologies and two complicated men who very publicly represented them.

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