Cultural education: Buckley, Vidal, and the essential documentary film Best of Enemies.


It took far too long for me to get around to watching this essential film. I highly recommend it. After you’ve seen it, please join me in lamenting the fact that Buckley and Vidal aside, their cultural perspectives remain locked in mortal combat, almost 50 years later.

Bilge Ebiri, writing at Vulture:

You might see a film about William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten televised debates during the 1968 presidential conventions as an opportunity to bask in eloquent, pointed repartee. You might also enjoy the spectacle of two of the foremost intellectuals of their time coming very close to physically beating the crap out of each other. You might not expect, however, to find yourself weeping — for the state of the republic and the poisoned media landscape, for the decay of the American social contract. Yet here we are. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s masterful Best of Enemies leaves you with an overwhelming sense of despair. It’s not just a great documentary, it’s a vital one …

 … Best of Enemies’ true aim is to lament a bygone political discourse. Vidal and Buckley may have started off as representatives of an old-fashioned school of debate, learned and articulate and polite, but by the end of the conventions they wound up unwittingly inventing a new media landscape: one of constant conflict, sustained anger, and barely contained violence. Gordon and Neville find in these two men’s infamous clash a turning point, the moment in time when the networks, the press, the pundits, and even average Americans first realized their taste for political bloodsport. A terrible beauty had been born, as they say. This might be the saddest film of the year.

At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw:

It is fascinating, not for any supposed lost standard of excellence in argument – the drawling debates look like a squabble between two snippy and indistinguishable twins – but for showing us two examples of that exquisite, extinct breed: the literate “political classes” willing to exchange high-flown badinage on television. The contest was always about who would lose their cool first and it was Buckley, furious at being called a “crypto-Nazi” and threatening to sock the “queer” Vidal in the face, live on camera. Buckley had, therefore, humiliatingly lost, but Vidal endured the ignominy of irrelevance as Buckley became the height of political fashion in the Reaganite years. They both then entered the wilderness as incorrect patrician wordsmiths who no one cared about any more.

A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times:

In 1968, as the summer political-convention season approached, ABC News decided to take a gamble. The network seemed permanently stuck in third place, and its news division in particular suffered from the lack of a brand-name on-air authority figure to compete with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC or Walter Cronkite at CBS. Back in those days, the two leading networks covered the conventions live from beginning to end. (Can you imagine?) Instead of comprehensiveness, ABC went for provocation and at least the illusion of intellectual heft, hiring Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. to conduct a series of debates during the Republican circus in Miami and the subsequent Democratic debacle in Chicago. “Best of Enemies,” Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s lively new documentary, an accessible assemblage of archival footage and talking-head analysis, mines the Buckley-Vidal skirmishes for nuggets of historical insight.

And also — not quite the same thing — for zingers and gotchas and other flashes of that mysterious, you-know-it-when-you-see-it phenomenon called “great television.” The most memorable such moment occurred late in the battle, as the Chicago Police Department rampaged in Grant Park. What looked like law and order to Mayor Richard J. Daley and like “Gestapo tactics” to Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut set off a series of especially nasty personal volleys between ABC’s designated intellectuals. Vidal needled Buckley, calling him a “crypto-Nazi” until Buckley lost his patrician cool and snapped back: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Ratings gold.