Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.

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In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.

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