Friday, April 8, 2016

Best of Enemies Movie Review

“That was a time when television was still a public square, when Americans gathered and saw pretty much the same thing. There’s nothing like that now.”

“The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more we’re divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation. Because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas, they’re not living in the same place.”

Those quotations above reverberate for me long after hearing it in Best of Enemies, the documentary about the Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley television debates ahead of the 1968 election. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville wrote and directed the documentary, an examination of the series of ten debates between Vidal, a liberal author, and Buckley, a conservative pundit.


They set the background for how these debates came into being with ABC trailing the other two big networks in ratings and desperate for something to bring viewers to their air. They hit upon the idea of getting these two men who despised not only each other’s points of view, but actually despised each other, in a room together and let the sparks fly.

Gordon and Neville spin a coherent, if perhaps a little doctored with the benefit of hindsight, narrative to illustrate how television – at least the news divisions of the networks – went from providing a public service to providing entertainment in order to sell ad space. Was this series of debates, which were, at least based on the clips provided in this film, highly entertaining, really the beginning of sacrificing integrity in the name of corporate interests? I don’t know, but it sure seems convincing. And at any rate, these were two powerhouse intellectuals who could use words as cutting weapons, both with an ability to thread sentences together that are beautiful to listen to even if you find their content condemnable.

Looking back on these moments from the vantage point of 2015, where we have presidential candidates conducting themselves in nationally televised debates no better than chimps throwing feces at one another, it makes me wish we had more of this kind of thing. But then I remember that’s just me. Vidal and Buckley were speaking to issues that I find important and doing so in a way that was appealing to me. But was this really a series of debates that spoke to all Americans the way those quotations above suggest? It’s highly unlikely that the rural uneducated would have had anything to do with either one of these men on TV. America has always been divided into communities of concern because what farmers in Iowa care about is not the same as what welfare families in Brooklyn care about.

If Best of Enemies has a failing, it’s that Gordon and Neville don’t ever seem to question the notion espoused by all these talking heads in their film that the entire TV audience and all of America was transfixed by this very highly-educated, very white, and very well-to-do manner of speaking. But this is a documentary that is both entertaining and illuminating. Watching these two go at it with their very obvious disdain for one another is excellent programming. It’s fairly obvious that this is not theatrical dislike that is a put-on for the cameras. And the arrival of that watershed moment when Buckley threatened to punch Vidal in a moment of abject frustration seems very much like product of careful planning on the part of Vidal, who knew all too well that his opponent could be driven out of his shell to reveal some of the darker sides of his personality.

I think almost anything would be better for this country than the cacophony of shouts, slings, barbs, and insults that passes for debate on the cable news channels. Maybe intellectuals like Vidal and Buckley don’t speak to or for everyone, but hey, I’m willing to cop to the fact that I’d be satisfied having the national conversation directed by a select number of elites for a little while.

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