Two of American political history’s most arresting conservationists, will forever be heavy weight republican William F. Buckley and lizard-tongued liberal Gore Vidal. Now, whatever your political beliefs, one can neither deny the magnetism of either men, nor the balanced way in which they are dealt with in Best of Enemies. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville strive to keep the field tight at both ends, focusing on what the outspoken gents’ televised 1968 debates meant for American politics (not to mention the development of news broadcasting as a whole) instead of simply digging up the past to settle an old score.
Buckley and Vidal’s debate came as the result of a kind of trifecta of issues; first, failing broadcaster ABC needed ratings, second, the Republican and Democratic party conferences were kicking off, and finally two desperately opposing writers were looking to cement their philosophies in the new age via TV. Unfortunately, the debates- there are 10 of them- don’t quite seem to ever deal with the issues at hand.
It’s about a clash of characters and ideals but its skimpy on the ideals. Vidal is an incredible wordsmith, but so is Buckley, the two spend so much time sparring (read; dick-waving) that the issues are left to the filmmakers to structure. And that’s where some problems can arise; too much context and arguably not enough info on what the two were actually supposed to be discussing leaves the viewer a little hungry for closure. As a whole the documentary is riveting, undeniably enjoyable, but one must eventually wonder whether it’s overly reliant on the fascinating intellectual deviants at its core.
Like Frost/Nixon without the political intrigue, Best of Enemies is a gripping piece of historical entertainment. It does however sport a line of such shattering incredulity, that it might just put Nixon’s now infamous ‘not illegal’ spurt to shame. John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer narrate the diaries of Vidal and Buckley respectively, which is a fantastic idea given the two actors’ outspoken and parallel political views. There’s a host of charismatic and fascinating interviews, none least with Buckley’s own often hilarious brother, an excellent array of clips, and some really sparky editing. However the film never seems to quite articulate itself in the best way. The effects of the titanic duo’s verbal sparring on contemporary media is unfortunately ditched to a short credits sequence which is a shame as its one of the most striking parts.
As an introduction to the works of Gore Vidal and the processes of political commentary Best of Enemies is a blast, but it never quite manages to resonate or strike as hard as Vidal’s vocabulary. If you want to watch two very smart men be snide and snippy at an explosive point of zeitgeist, this is probably the best place to see it.
Director: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Stars: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens