Best of Enemies is a modest documentary with a clear and compact subject matter. In 1968, ABC was trailing the other two big networks, CBS and NBC, in success and ratings. So when the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions that year, ABC decided to do something unorthodox: Instead of simply broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage, it carved out time during the conventions for a series of ten political debates, for which it hired the conservative William F. Buckley and the liberal Gore Vidal.
And that’s the whole ballgame, concept-wise. But Best of Enemies’ themes are considerably grander: it sees the debates as a microcosm for the political divides that were already emerging in the United States, and which have riven us ever since. Beyond that, it suggests these debates were the moment when the model of political-commentary-as-partisan-bloodsport was birthed.
If anyone could be said to be the founder of the modern American conservative movement, it would be William F. Buckley. While personally acquainted with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Buckley was the ideas man: He created the national conservative magazine National Review, which made a name for itself criticizing the civil rights movement, defending segregation, encouraging America to be as pugilistically violent as possible internationally, and all while demanding “law and order” arch-traditionalist social norms at home. Even before the 1968 debates, Buckley had established the show Firing Line, in which he would bring on a liberal commentator and trade barbs. He was widely considered the most intelligent and capable public debater of his day.
Gore Vidal, meanwhile, was a prolific and famous historical author and an outspoken political liberal. Beyond his historical fiction, he’d also written social satire whose advocacy for sexual liberation would be considered edgy even by today’s standards.
Needless to say, the two men couldn’t stand each other. (When asked by ABC who he absolutely would not debate, Buckley reportedly said “a communist, and maybe Gore Vidal.”)
Best of Enemies shows at least one of the debates almost in its entirety, and its a fun thing to behold. As the film notes, this was still the era in which the big three networks were the cementers of a common American identity, rather than platforms for competing ideologies. You can almost feel that old, staid steadiness wafting off the grainy images and low-tech sets. Both men were also first-rate examples of the old-school WASP establishment, complete with patrician accents. Buckley was well-coiffed but could get bug-eyed and devilish, while Vidal was ramrod straight and could evince disdain from on high like nobody’s business.
In the midst of that, it’s bracing to see Buckley and Vidal go at each other in a brazenly hostile and ideological manner, sometimes with a level of ferocity that would surprise even modern viewers.
Of course, the film can’t just be a string of the debates. So it proceeds in an episodic manner, fleshing out various backstories in between, both in terms of the men themselves and the broader historical and political moment they were in. Sometimes this is successful – like when the film dives into Vietnam and the social upheaval in Chicago that accompanied the Democratic convention – and sometimes it’s just a chore and a slog, like when it chronicles both Buckley and Vidal’s failed runs at political office.
Best of Enemies also boasts a massive roster of interviewees. Too massive, really, as I couldn’t tell you a single one of them were, each only has time for short snippets of commentary, and they all sort of bleed together.
While its presentation of the debates as the Pandora’s Box for modern news coverage is interesting, Best of Enemies is actually at its most captivating when digging into Vidal and Buckley’s psyches. This is especially true of its final twenty minutes, when the film surveys the aftermath of the debates, and the tone shifts from wry humor to a kind of elegiac sadness.
Late in the game, Vidal accused Buckley of being a “crypto-Nazi,” and the latter responded by coming completely unhinged, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face. That became the moment by which history remembered ABC’s entire experiment.
Best of Enemies suggests Buckley was poignantly embarrassed by his slip-up, and couldn’t let it go. He penned a very long article in Esquire, that seemed aimed at examining, explaining, and justifying himself all at once. Vidal went in for the kill with an equally long response in the same magazine, airing his suspicion that Buckley was gay (the post-debate obsession the two men had with one another does have a tinge of sexual mania to it.) Buckley sued, Vidal counter-sued, and the whole thing ended anticlimactically when Esquire settled out of court – an outcome that disappointed Vidal greatly.
According to one of the interviewees, Vidal actually watched the debates from beginning to end several times over in his later years. By that point his star had faded, save the occasional appearance in films like With Honors and Gattaca, and his books were no longer read. Buckley went on to become a kingmaker in U.S. conservatism, but Best of Enemies concludes with a heartrending scene in which an elderly Buckley is confronted with the ABC tape of the ignominious moment, and is horrified because he thought it had been destroyed. In another clip, a red-eyed Buckley tells Charlie Rose he is tired of life and ready to die.
There’s something deep and melancholy there, bound up with the fleeting nature of fame, the burdens of ideology, and the psychological costs of conservatism in particular. But Best of Enemies is only briefly able to get into it. Perhaps the film picked the wrong thesis.