The elevator pitch for Best of Enemies would be, “An inside look at the 1968 political debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal that took place on ABC News,” but the documentary achieves so much more beyond that. Yes, it is a great look back at those debates, but it is also a great portrait of the two debaters. How they are different, how they are the same. Where they came from and why they hated each other. But it also does a great job of showing us how this debate can basically be pointed to as the birthplace for much of our political and punditry discourse of today.
As someone who wasn’t around in 1968, this look back was mostly revelatory. I was aware of both of the subjects, Vidal and Buckley, and the tension surrounding the 1968 conventions (especially the protester abuse in Chicago), but beyond that I was taking in just about everything else for the first time. Which is to say that everything about this documentary was pretty riveting for me.
Vidal is the guy I knew about the most before coming into this, but the film does a great job of letting us really get to know him, where he came from and what he’s all about. There are endless sound bites and clips of Vidal to watch and enjoy, and we get plenty of that here, but directors Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville use them not to just entertain but show us who he is.
The same goes for Buckley, who the film has no problem painting as the root of evil that is the modern republican party. And, well, they might be right. Buckley is just as eloquent as Vidal, and some of the best stuff in the film is when they compare just how similar these two guys are. Yet, they really did end up hating each other, basically until they died.
Gordon & Neville also do a great job of juxtaposing their interviews with archival footage that shows how these debates and Buckley’s goals of the time were a turning point for American politics as we know it. These debates sort of spawned the punditry of today and there is no lack of evidence that Buckley and the Republican party made their first steps towards the far right during this election.
Best of Enemies is a fairly straightforward documentary, but Buckley & Vidal are not your standard subjects. This eighty plus minute documentary almost seems too short because these two personalities are so big and entertaining. I totally can understand why these two captured the public’s attention and launched ABC to the top of the news rankings. But what puts the doc over the top is Gordon & Morgan’s ability to take their subjects and connect them to today. Sure to be one of the best documentaries of the year, don’t miss Best of Enemies.