Best of Enemies-2015
Director-Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Starring-William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal
Scott’s Review #467
Reviewed August 19, 2016
Best of Enemies is a 2015 documentary that transports the viewer back in time to the 1960’s, and specifically to 1968, during the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I found the documentary to be a nice little history lesson for me as 1968 was before my time and the timing of my viewing (2016) was perfect as at the time of this review we are in the midst of an intense presidential race. This is an adequate slice of political debate and rivalry- differing ideologies among the central figures.
ABC Primetime news, at that time a floundering network, needed something to attract viewers, and something to compete with competitors, the much higher rated CBS and NBC. This was a time when audiences had merely three networks of news offerings to choose from. The documentary references this fact as the power of the medium of television in 1968 was quite intense and still new. I looked back fondly on the limited choices of networks then, compared to the oodles of offerings now, but everyone watched the same programming, which elicited better conversations the next day it could be argued.
ABC concocted a scheme to bring together two bitter rivals, ultra conservative, William F Buckley, and ultra liberal, Gore Vidal. the pair, obviously of differing opinions, reportedly despised each other and the possibilities electric.
I found the documentary to be very genuine- 1968 was before reality television and mock feuds to garner ratings eve existed. Their heated debates are now legendary and there was authenticity to them. The documentary is told in a structured way- Buckley and Vidal faced off during a total of ten primaries- five for the Republican primary in Florida- five for the Democratic primary in Chicago. Other than their blowups, the conversations crackled with intelligence- both men obviously passionate, and well-educated in their views.
Best of Enemies also gives an overview of both Vidal and Buckley and how they each had come to achieve their respective fame. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends are interspersed in the documentary among the constant barbs between the two as the debates ravaged on.
A monumental moment occurs during the final democratic debate that would cement the loathing between Vidal and Buckley for decades to come. Continuing to debate with a snarky, condescending tone by both, tensions came to a head as Vidal referenced Buckley as a Nazi and Buckley, in turn, called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the mouth. The hatred in the eyes of both men are the central point of the documentary as their rivalry knew no boundaries. The fact that this all took place on live television (before tape delay censors) made it all the more shocking.
Strangely, the documentary chose to use narrated voices by Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow as Buckley and Vidal, respectively, for a few segments. I found this rather unnecessary and even distracting. The voices were surmising what each felt at the time and really did not work at all.
A smart, intelligent toned documentary that shows the real birth of political pundits (now a dime a dozen) and the realism that television was at that time period- still rather novel. Today it is filled with outrageous people and those looking for their ten seconds of fame. Best of Enemies shows us the authenticity of television back in the early days and sadly, reminds us what it has now become.