SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 19, 2015
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
For the average viewer, I suspect that, at least on paper, the documentary Best of Enemies might sound like a real bore. Here you have the story of a series of televised political debates between two public intellectuals from 1968 and an examination of its roots and impact. I mean, I almost fell asleep just writing that line. But I’ll go on the record as saying that Best of Enemies is not only uproariously funny, even for those not particularly politically inclined, but is nothing less than wildly entertaining.
You have to keep in mind that the two combatants (this was more mortal combat than debate) were the colorful William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal and that the debates took place against the cultural backdrop of the contentious 1968 presidential elections. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see any footage from these debates, you’re likely to remember just how colorful the whole thing was. Infamous at the time, today the debates have sadly been widely forgotten, but the film reminds us that these were men that were able to, even while elevating political discussion to heights nearly unimaginable by modern popular standards, make the discussion of government policies wickedly entertaining. Of course, the fact that they truly loathed one another and that both men had rapier wits, didn’t hurt.
The back story of the debates is that ABC News was in a distant third place behind NBC and CBS in 1968 and while the other two networks were going to provide full convention coverage, ABC didn’t have the resources to do the same. So in an effort to come up with something different and attention-getting, they settled on making these debates a key component of their limited coverage. Interestingly, ABC almost becomes a third starring character in the documentary, providing further comedic relief in its stumbling, bumbling comedy-of-errors attempts at low budget cultural relevance. No doubt the network struggled, but in its debate decision it struck gold; the coverage was wildly successful and ratings rose, and it could be argued that the face of political coverage was forever changed in the process, for better or worse.
One of the most striking things apparent from watching the debate footage is how differently TV executives saw their audience in 1968 than today. Here you have two great intellectuals given 15-minute slots to substantively debate politics and that was seen as a way to boost ratings. And sure, the potential fireworks were a big draw but clearly the assumption wasn’t that the discourse would be over the heads of the average viewer. It’s shocking and saddening to think how that has morphed into modern political punditry, which is now all flash and bang (much of it staged) without any of that intellectual heft.
Ultimately, the debates would reach their most contentious point in the second to last meeting, when Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” leading Buckley to lose his cool and call Vidal a “queer” before threatening to punch him in “the goddamn face,” a spellbinding train-wreck of a moment that was highly controversial for a 1968 television broadcast. The film makes clear that moment was one that would go on to haunt Buckley for the rest of his life and that Vidal’s hatred for Buckley did not diminish even a little bit even after Buckley was laid in the grave.
What the film manages to do, much like the legendary debates it documents, is to be highly educational and enlightening while also being completely captivating. Equal parts history lesson, cultural examination and cautionary tale, the film manages to bridge the gap that Buckley once spoke of when he said, “There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.”