Best of Enemies

Note: a version of this review originally appeared in Kitchen Drawer: Volume 8, Issue 2. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net

Turn on any news network these days, and there's a pretty decent chance that you'll stumble across two ideologically-opposed pundits arguing about politics. It's a tried-and-true way of spicing up almost any news show: bring on two people who disagree with each other and have them bicker away while a moderator occasionally interjects to steer the conversation one way or another. More often than not, such conversations prove shrill and irritating, as the pundits merely shout over each other and repeat worn-out, predictable talking points.

The documentary Best of Enemies, however, offers a reminder that such exchanges can be riveting television when you've got a couple of smart people with unique minds in front of the camera. In 1968, ABC news decided that they would stages a series of debates between two pundits – one liberal, one conservative - which would air as the Republicans and Democrats were holding their exceptionally heated national conventions. The conservative perspective would be represented by William F. Buckley, founder of the prestigious conservative publication National Review. The liberal perspective would be represented by Gore Vidal, a writer and prominent cultural figure who had earned great acclaim as both an essayist and a novelist. Both men were intellectual titans, boasting quick wits, vast vocabularies and a deep passion for their respective ideologies. Naturally, they hated each other.

Before digging into a great deal of riveting debate footage, Best of Enemies does a fine job of establishing precisely who these men were and what they represented. Buckley was an ally of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; a man who played a key role in helping to define what conservatism would look like for the next few decades. Vidal was even more socially liberal than many of his Democratic peers, and had a tendency to look at America through the lens of world history: as the country continued to establish itself as a dominant military superpower, Vidal saw images of ancient Rome on the verge of collapse.

Regardless of which figure you happen to sympathize with politically, the ten-part debate that unfolds (well, the pieces of it we see, anyway) is fascinating to watch. These men hit each other with the sort of devastating off-the-cuff barbs that most pundits would struggle to conjure in the final draft of an essay. Their methods are different, but equally effective: Buckley takes Vidal's assorted arguments and picks them apart piece by piece, while Vidal continually finds subtle ways to anger the easily-outraged Buckley and make his opponent look flustered. One moment stands above the rest as a defining exchange, as words of ferocious, profane venom are permitted to fly on national television.

Today, we don't see many people like Buckley or Vidal having substantial debates on television... not because they don't exist, but because such blatantly erudite intellectualism is regarded with much more suspicion than it used to be (there's a pressure on modern politicians and pundits to act more “relatable,” which Buckley and Vidal certainly never bothered with) and because the soundbite-driven nature of modern TV news doesn't often leave TV personalities with much room to make an elegant, nuanced argument. With no-nonsense clarity, Best of Enemies offers a look at political discourse that feels familiar in its bitter divisiveness, but curiously fresh in its eloquence.


Best of Enemies

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 2015