A friend of mine asked me a couple of weeks ago about my thoughts on Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s new documentary Best of Enemies which we had both had a chance to see earlier i the week. At the time, I gave her a quick impression, but also told her that I was still working on absorbing it, and that she would have to look here for further impressions, so here we go.
First off, I feel like I should note that the time period in which the “debates” depicted in this film – basically the period surrounding the 1968 Presidential election – and to a larger extent, the entire decade that runs roughly from 1968 to 1977 is one of particular fascination to me for a number of reasons (and is one you’re going to see a few more posts on soon), not the least of which being that I feel that not only are those years highly reflective of a lot of the things that are going on now, but also that, in large part, we’re currently paying for and having to deal with ideas and changes and business that was left unfinished during that time period.
Before I go any further I want to go ahead and state up front that I have no intention of turning this into a political blog, though I’m sure as I write about these things, it will be next to impossible to keep my own views from coming through. No, the focus here will be, as it always has been, on the films and movies from and about those times, but I also feel that it’s next to impossible to discuss those films without discussing the culture and politics of the time, since so many of them depend upon an understanding of what was going on in the country at the time.
Okay, with all of that preface out of the way, let’s move on to Best of Enemies.
Simply put, the film depicts and examines a series of 10 “debates” which took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during ABC News’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
You might notice that I keep putting the word “debates” in quotation marks, because although that seems to have been ABC’s plan – to have these two towering intellectuals discuss and take sides on the issues that were prominent at the time and were sure to be under discussion not only amongst the various candidates for the nominations, but also on the national stage – what they actually got was a clash between two egos, neither of whom seemed to be interested in discussing the topics at hand, but rather in simply engaging in a game of one-upsmanship and in tearing the other down.
Yes, I know, it almost seems like I could be describing the recent run of GOP debates which we have been seeing during the current nomination cycle. But the actual effect of these 1968 debates was even more insidious than that.
Because of economic constraints the network was facing at the time, (both NBC and CBS were dedicated to providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, something ABC simply couldn’t afford), they opted instead for limited coverage with much more emphasis on analysis of the days proceedings. Thus, in pitting these two great intellects from both sides of the political spectrum – Buckley representing what would at the time be considered the far right and Vidal the far left – the hope was that they might bring in more viewers who were looking for interpretation and analysis of what had been going on through the day.
It seems that what ABC simply didn’t account for was the amount of personal animosity towards the other that each man not only brought to the table at the beginning of their confrontations and which would develop even more deeply each time they encountered each other, ultimately boiling over when Mr Buckley turned on Vidal on live television and used language against him that he would later not only regret, but which he would carry with him throughout the rest of his life.
Needless to say, the movie documents an interesting series of confrontations that occurred at a time when the country was sharply divided not just politically, but ideologically, which in and of itself would be enough to make it worth watching.
The thing that gives Best of Enemies more resonance, however, moving it beyond the realm of being just a document of a historical curiosity, is how this series of confrontations would affect political commentary from that point on, and would act as a harbinger for today when it seems not only that this highly confrontational style of discourse (which is actually not that, but merely an airing of discord) would become the norm rather than the exception, until now it seems that there is no actual reporting being done, and that “news” programming is not shaped by a simple recording and reporting of the events of the day, but by a caustic level of interpretation that borders on propaganda for whichever side the outlet is supporting. And the film does at the end get around to making this comparison also, thus leaving the viewer with the actual thesis of the entire enterprise.
Of course, not all of this can be laid simply to this series of confrontations between these two men. There are an extraordinary number of factors, not the least of which being the explosion of 24/7/365 news outlets which not only need to fill a lot of time, but each of which has grown their own perspective and following. But, much like the film seems to think, there’s just too much to explore there than really is the subject of this particular essay.
In the end, while Best of Enemies does a relatively good job of presenting the material it wants to cover (I say “relatively”, because even as I was watching it, I felt that it could have done a bit better at providing some context for what was happening both inside and outside the convention hall that Vidal and Buckley were supposed to be covering, and even in the context it does present, it focuses solely on the confrontational and sensationalistic aspects of the events, failing to really mention whether the two men did ever even touch upon any of the material they were supposed to be covering), I found myself leaving the theater with a sense of wanting more. What exactly, I can;t say, exactly, though perhaps the above parenthetical is it in large part, and while I can’t say that I completely enjoyed it, I do recommend it to those interested in the ti,e period or in the state of political discourse in the country now.
Here’s the trailer: