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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

MOVIEW REVIEW: BEST OF ENEMIES (2015) DIR. MORGAN NEVILLE, ROBERT GORDON

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

 

The “best of enemies” in this fascinating documentary are Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Its timeliness could not be more perfect as we find ourselves inundated with presidential election lunacy. It documents the unforgettable presidential primaries of 1968 when ABC, the third ranking television network, unable to afford live coverage of the conventions, decided to have the two best-known political thinkers of that time go head to head and debate the proceedings live on television. It was audacious, risky and totally original. It radically changed the way politics was covered in the media for better or worse. It would signal the rise of the pundit class in visibility and influence.

Compared to the blanket coverage of the other two networks of the messy, boring, often ridiculous goings on at a presidential convention - the pairing of these two outspoken, highly literate, intellectual arch-enemies going at each other with gladiatorial glee was absolutely thrilling. Both men, gifted with superb eloquence, sophistication, and droll wit, raised a blood sport to the level of an Olympic fencing match. Equally matched, there were no holds barred, which mostly brought out the best in both of these dueling titans, with some notable lesser moments. There were lapses into name-calling and threats of physical violence which could have marred the headiness of it all had they not been so brilliant to watch. Far more interesting to hear Vidal call Buckley a “crypto-nazi” provoking Buckley to call Vidal a “queer” and threaten to punch him in the face - than the electioneering between Nixon vs. Reagan and Humphrey vs. McCarthy.

3William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

5William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

The fact that they barely addressed the activities at the convention and hijacked the opportunity for each of them to highlight their own diametrically opposed world views as well their personal enmity made for great entertainment and was hugely successful for ABC. It was also a reflection of the fractured psyche of the country at that time - playing against the background of discontent over the Vietnam war and violent civil rights battles. The film’s archival footage initially looks amazingly dated especially when augmented by more recent talking heads like Christopher Hitchens and Dick Cavet but it is that which holds the most interest. Alas, from the point of view of the present, we might wish that it had not been so successful. Look at what has been spawned with cable television and 24 hour news cycles. But, how much today feels like 1968 is the real revelation. It is quite astounding and not great news.

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

 

4William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

by Belle McIntyre

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