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USA 2015
Directed by
Morgan Neville / Robert Gordon
87 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Best Of Enemies

Synopsis: In 1968, ideological opposites, the conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. and the left-leaning enfant terrible, Gore Vidal, were engaged by American television’s ABC to present a series of nationally-televised debates associated with both the Republican and Democrat Presidential Candidate Conventions. Their pugilistic style of televised debate was groundbreaking and ushered in a new era of public discourse and pundit TV.

1968 was a most significant of years in terms of social change and political upheaval and this excellent, compelling documentary offers us one more piece of that chaotic historical puzzle whilst allowing us insight into two of the great intellectual minds of the time. And, in an odd way, we only have this fascinating document because of ABC TV’s poor ratings. In an effort to claw back some audience share from the ratings giants, NBC and CBC, whose approach to these political conventions was to simply to cover the whole thing, ABC hit upon an ingenious way to maximise their low standing and small budget. They hired Buckley and Vidal to present a series of ten live TV debates – five from the Republican Convention in Miami and five from the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  What the audience got, however, was much more than coverage of the event. In fact, if the clips we see in the doco are anything to go by, their debates were a far more wide-ranging commentary on America at the end of the 60s, laced with a tinge of personal vitriol (even hatred) for each other, and their razor sharp, acerbic wit.

Co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the latter best known for the Academy Award winning 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) mostly let Buckley and Vidal speak for themselves with a little contextual help from the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett and a host of execs and commentators from the era, plus the voices of Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal, reading from their respective writings.

There are some great archival clips of pop cultural icons of the 60s like Laugh In and Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Mansion as well as the horrifying moments of the violent riots outside the Chicago Convention amidst the chants of The Whole World Is Watching so chillingly captured by Haskell Wexler in his 1969 movie, Medium Cool. But it’s the moment where Vidal pushes Buckley to the point where he famously hoists himself on his own petard that is still quite shocking and, clearly, haunted the conservative for the rest of his life.

Recreations of these kinds of political and social watershed moments, such as Ron Howard’s 2008 film, Frost/Nixon are entertaining and enlightening in their own right, but nothing beats the primary sources as offered by this kind of documentary.  It is an excellent evocation of a moment when the nature of political and social commentary on television changed forever. But what is clear with the hindsight of almost fifty years, is that whilst we now see the evolution of this kind of combative journalism on our screens every day, we’ve lost the level of intellect in argument and debate so vividly exemplified by these two great minds of the 20th century.




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