SXSW Film review: ‘Best of Enemies’

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In today’s age of 24-hour cable barkers and network news scandals, it’s hard to imagine there was once a time when Americans considered public intellectuals celebrities and held network news in the highest esteem.

Such was the climate in 1968 when conservative journalist and intellectual William F. Buckley and novelist-playwright-raconteur Gore Vidal took to the ABC airwaves for a series of 10 debates during the contentious Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Miami and Chicago, respectively.

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s SXSW entry “Best of Enemies” details the rhetorical blood sport that captured the essence of the divide of the American public while setting the course for the future deterioration of our televised media.

ABC didn’t have the high-minded reasoning for pitting the two effete intellectuals against one another. In 1968, the network was considered a joke, third in the ratings, with nary a few of second place. As one person said in the documentary, the joke went that if you wanted to end the war in Vietnam, air it on ABC and it would be cancelled in 13 days. It was a stroke of brilliance then that ABC executives decided to invite National Review founder and editor Buckley on live television to argue with the public figure he most loathed.

The two men took to the air following each night of the two national conventions ostensibly to debate the parties’ platforms and performances, but the show quickly devolved (and was elevated to) a glorious personal jousting between the two. The two men held each other up as examples of the right and left in American politics and culture, explaining what was wrong with the opposing side and the deleterious effect each’s views had on the country.

Vidal entered the debates in Miami obviously more prepared than his counterpart, using Buckley’s written words against him to paint the Republican Party as elitist and disdainful of the poor, a group of neo-Fascists leading the country into a dangerous place fueled by greed and evil. Buckley, a debater par excellence, seemed caught off guard with the tactic, but was ready to return fire by the time the show moved to the powder keg environment in Chicago.

Buckley saw Vidal as a perverse hedonist who represented the amoral failings of the liberal left that was attempting to pull America out of the Vietnam war and lead it down a path of decadence and communism. The debates, which featured stunning vocabulary and exhibited an amazing amount of confidence by each man, illustrated the schism in American culture and portended the future calcification and polarity of the country’s political thought. But never has vitriol sounded so beautiful or funny, at least until the penultimate debate, when Vidal goaded Buckley into a scathing and hateful personal attack that would linger over both men’s legacies for decades.

Throughout the “Best of Enemies,” the filmmakers weave into the narrative the backstories of both men and how their upbringing and self-perception brought them to such vaunted places in American culture.

There is great pathos and tragedy in both men’s lives, and as much humor as there is in the film, it is underlined with a sadness. The film doesn’t ask the audience to take sides or lobby for the superiority of one man over the other. In fact, despite their intellectual greatness, both men come off as deserving a certain amount of pity, their public personas eventually held hostage to their own vanity and self-righteous indignation.

“Best of Enemies” captivates with its detail and historical footage, and makes one long for the Golden Age of TV and the peak of public discourse when men with “patrician, languid accents” (as one linguistics expert in the movie stated) could trade rhetorical barbs with eloquence and panache.  It also makes one mourn the track upon which the televised mud fight (which gained huge ratings) set the American media.

“Best of Enemies” screens again Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at the Topfer at Zach.

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