By Gregory Crofton
Two very intelligent, ego-driven men – novelist Gore Vidal and political writer William F. Buckley – squared off in 10-part televised debate in 1968 as part of ABC’s coverage the presidential primary conventions.
BEST OF ENEMIES is a documentary that looks back on those debates, focusing on how the times and the medium, television, came together to produce a vituperative moment between the men that neither lived to forget or really get beyond.
Co-directed by Morgan Neville, who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, and Robert Gordon, this documentary project was surely a challenging one: To make a cogent film out of a collection of short debates from more than 40 years ago. It succeeds in one sense, but falls short in another.
BEST OF ENEMIES successfully relates on screen the charged atmosphere and feel of the late 60s, as well as the relative newness television. But you don’t get to know Vidal or Buckley well enough, other than that they’re both smug in their own way, so the debates dangle devoid of any contextual meaning. Instead what you learn is that the clash of their titanic egos and intellect gave birth to a new type of theater, one that flourishes on television today and does a disservice to the country.
Participant Media is one of the media companies that funded this film. Participant doesn’t hide that it involves itself with projects that inform and hopefully persuade people to change their behavior. The solution to the media pickle we find ourselves in, one delivered abruptly at the end of “BEST OF ENEMIES,” is to eliminate the useless, divisive chattering being offered up by pundits today by … just turning off your television?
There’s got to be a better answer than that, or even better, this doc shouldn’t offer any type of answer. It should focus more on Vidal and Buckley and explore why core American political issues haven’t changed much in decades (i.e. campaign finance reform).
For more about BEST OF ENEMIES visit the film’s website.