The 1968 television debates between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, which accompanied that year’s Republican and Democratic conventions, had an impact on political commentary that is still evident today. New documentary Best of Enemies (2015) seeks to unpick that legacy bringing together a wealth of archival footage, including of the broadcasts themselves, alongside talking heads and reflections on the period from the two men’s own written recollections.
While examination of the wider context may be slightly elusive, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film entertainingly lays bare the personal animosity that fuelled their confrontation and the lasting effect it had on punditry. “I was drawn to the gray shadows of the cathode tube,” Vidal wrote in the voice of the eponymous narrator of his hugely controversial satirical novel Myra Breckinridge. His famous assertion that the only two things in life that a person should never refuse are sex and a television appearance would suggest a similar fascination of his own. His affinity for the limelight and understanding of the dynamic of television are evident in his approach to appearing with Buckley. The power of the soundbite is key and illuminating talking heads recall Vidal testing out his barbs backstage before the cameras rolled.
He was only there because when Buckley was asked who he’d like to appear with he name-checked Vidal is one of the few people he’d refuse to debate. ABC were the company doing the hiring and apparently informed debate wasn’t top of their priority list. The two public intellectuals proved a perfect storm of contempt as conveyed by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Buckley’s brother, Bill. Expertly transitioning from interview to archive and back again, the directors perfectly set up the showdown and then let the tapes roll. Arguably, this is where Best of Enemies is at its most captivating, as the programs themselves are what made history – particularly their infamous fiery conclusion that saw the spat continue onto the pages of Esquire magazine and into the courtroom.
While the snarky comments fly, it is clear the level of discourse has been severely lowered and the film motions towards the tumultuous events on the streets outside – anti-war protesters clashing with riot police – without the juxtaposition of import ever quite landing. Still, the beginning of the end of broadcast political discourse is what the film is arguably presenting and in that it succeeds. Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow do a sterling job of reading Buckley and Vidal’s writing which diverge in tone as greatly as did their feelings about the debates. Buckley lamented losing his cool and the vitriolic slur he seethed against Vidal, but Vidal dined out on his ‘victory’ for years. If Best of Enemies is keen to show us anything, though, it’s that the winner was the TV rating, and the loser, thoughtful, engaged television debate. Fortunately, Buckley and Vidal duly oblige to provide the wit along the way.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson