More than a documentary on the public rivalry between liberal intellectual, Gore Vidal, and conservative heavyweight, William F. Buckley Jr, ‘Best of Enemies’ is a boxing match played out through rounds of televised debate and vicious verbal sparring.
Set against the 1968 US Republican and Democratic conventions, television network ABC, rating third amongst the three major networks, sought out two very public figures, both well known for their opposing views, to debate each other on national television. Buckley initially refused to be seen on television with Vidal, who he believed “represented everything that was going to moral hell.” The two sparred nightly, with Vidal positing that Buckley “was always to the right, and almost always in the wrong,” with uninterrupted retellings of the debates proving highly enjoyable.
Writers and political commentators include Christopher Hitchens and various friends of the two intellectuals, who elaborate on the significance and impact of their debates. Kelsey Grammer, a well-known Republican supporter, and John Lithgow, also public on his more progressive views, provide the voices for Buckley and Vidal respectively, both of whom reflected in their writings on the much touted rivalry.
The documentary (co-directed by Morgan Neville, whose last film was the crowd-pleasing Twenty Feet From Stardom) glosses over later aspects of the pair’s ongoing hatred, their animosity long outlasting the debates. Their sparring served as a model for today’s televised political forums, and the film alludes to the modern legacy of the two without exploring it in any detail.
Vidal and Buckley fought over competing ideas at a time of immense change, and the documentary needlessly digresses from its focus to provide background on contemporary social movements. The rounds of debate prove interesting enough, and whether you pick a side or not, you’ll enjoy the sport.
Best of Enemies will be screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June