So here we are, up to our elbows in the ignorance of polemic B.S., puzzling over when exactly America came to the saturation of Trumps and Huckabees braying cultural calumnies in the press. If you need a convenient scapegoat for all the jackasses jockeying for position in today’s presidential rodeo, maybe you should just blame ABC, the network that had the bright idea to pit William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal in televised debates more than 40 years ago. Did ABC know what they were doing when they staged that infamous verbal sparring match? Could they have predicted the far-reaching impact of their mad business stratagem?
Buckley and Vidal’s infamously grueling rhetorical slugfest is the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s new film, documentary Best of Enemies. Neville won the hearts and minds of arthouse audiences (as well as of the AMPAS voting body) in 2013 with 20 Feet from Stardom, a film that peers behind curtains in show biz to showcase the unsung performers responsible for buttressing the careers of our favorite singers. In Best of Enemies, Neville has teamed with Gordon to pull back a different curtain, one concealing the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise staid world of political commentary.
Not that there’s really much to conceal. Buckley, he of the great Republican ideal that might makes right, and Vidal, the polished, barbed-tongued author who never quite knew when to leave well enough alone, hated each other—they were the respective champions of the country’s intellectual right and left. In the film’s vast collection of archival clips, their shared rancor is impossible to ignore. The idea that two human beings could have such utter dislike and disregard for one another is nearly unthinkable, except that such animus clouds a shocking majority of our political discourse even in 2015. But Best of Enemies argues that that coarse brand of colloquy descends directly from ABC’s 1968 enterprise: In having Buckley and Vidal cross swords as part of the studio’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, so spawned the world of punditry we know and loathe now.
It’s a claim that the film backs up with surprising efficacy. Best of Enemies sprints and plods in alternating order and strains its 88 minutes with the impression of girth. Whether by design or not, though, that uneven pacing reinforces the film’s point: Politics and news casting can be pretty dull. Why not punch them up by having talking heads go for the throat? ABC’s idea was, at the time, new, untested and completely crazy. Currently, it’s the norm, and those talking heads do big numbers in the Nielsens. (Arguably, we’re part of the problem for watching them.) When the film turns to taped footage of Buckley and Vidal trading snipes and snubs, it’s wildly compelling. In part that’s because these men were masters of the underhanded remark—but we also like our public dramas. Neville and Gordon both know it, and so does Best of Enemies.
Still, the film endorses neither poor sportsmanship nor celebrity opprobrium. In its fashion, it’s actually tragic. Surprisingly, Buckley gains the most sympathy through portraiture. In his most infamous exchange with Vidal, set against the backdrop of Chicago doing its best impression of an Orwellian dystopia, Buckley called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him. Best of Enemies holds that note for the remainder of its duration after playing the scene for our viewing pleasure, and the effect is chilling. We wonder how much Buckley left unsaid in regards to his clashes with Vidal before his 2008 passing. We know exactly how Vidal felt—his send-off of “RIP WFB—in hell” to his late opponent says it all—but did Buckley regret his role in the debates? Was he burdened by unexpressed remorse for his actions, perhaps even his beliefs? Best of Enemies can only hint at Buckley’s truth, but we pity him despite his transgressions and malignance. (In fairness, Vidal looks like just as much of an asshole as Buckley in the end, though hearing John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer read excerpts from Buckley’s and Vidal’s personal writings lends both men excess humanity.)
The film suggests that the fiery bickering dominating our media is more debilitating than meets the eye; this is what can happen when civil discourse becomes bloodsport. Best of Enemies deftly contextualizes the debates within the framework of their era, but the film is more concerned about how much they’ve echoed through the years. The tenor of Buckley’s meetings with Vidal is felt in every inch of our society’s contemporary political machine, from the speech of our crop of wannabe commanders-in-chief to the language used by our televised cognoscenti. Our ability to speak the same language has long been fractured, and Best of Enemies tracks the faultlines of that social temblor with remarkable precision.
Director: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Writers: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Starring: John Lithgow, Kelsey Grammer
Release Date: July 31, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.