Best of Enemies

The old adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” could not be less relevant to William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. As subjects of the new documentary film Best of Enemies—scheduled to be screened this year at the 13th Annual Independent Film Festival Boston running from April 22nd through 29th—Buckley and Vidal pose as colossal rivalries of their respective political convictions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, the film examines the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions, when ABC News hired the conservative commentator Buckley and liberal author Vidal to debate the parties’ platforms. The manner in which they dismantled each other on national television, as both polemiscists and people, is supremely portrayed. From religion, to politics, to the decline of the American Empire, the debates historically bolstered commercial ratings for ABC and ushered in a new standard of televised discourse nation-wide. Well balanced and gripping, Best of Enemies gives as much attention to the intellectuals stripped of their syndicated personas as to their publicly-aired, patrician vitriol.

With the help of media specialists, historians, and television studio executives, the film precisely anchors the debates in the historical moment when issues of race, religion, and socio-economic standing were to be ripped apart in ’68. Prior to that year and its aggressive zeitgeist, former President of NBC News Richard Wald states in the film, “Networks did not invite controversy. They were in the center, cementers of idea, not disruptors.” ABC unknowingly made a bold move in hiring Buckley and Gore, two figures who so strongly embodied opposing ideals they virtually negated each other. Their ideological magnetisms were purely polarized, to the extent that they are shown in the film to morph into a deplorable hatred. Yet, they did share a mystical curiosity for each other. This ambiguous dichotomy is at one point beautifully stretched over a photographic tableaux stoically depicting the two men in a dressing room. As the perspective discourages accurate depth of field, they are seemingly seated very close in proximity. Progressing through the series—each photograph revealing Buckley getting closer and closer to Vidal—we arrive at the final image in which Buckley’s jutting chin fits conveniently upon the bridge of Vidal’s nose. This illusion bemoans one crucial fact in the film: there is no space for productive argument for these two. So inculcated with their own beliefs, debate for Buckley and Vidal was not plausible. If there was no reconciliation attempted between these two passionate men, the film asks, what has become of the pressing issues of the 1960s that still thrive today?

Though explicit political agendas of filmmakers may reside in documentaries they produce, this is not the case in Best of Enemies, and it is for the better. Writer/director team Gordon and Neville do not impose or let their voices rise above their subjects’, allowing Buckley and Vidal to inform the film’s angle as more than just harmfully witty, rancorous elites. After reviewing the ninth public tête-à-tête in which Vidal and Buckley exchange acerbic slurs, silence pours over media specialists and other academics contextualizing the conventions. One cannot write or speak about the ad-libbed eruptions in these debates, for fear of doing this film a severe injustice. Witness them personally during IFFBoston this year, when Best of Enemies is premiered in New England on April 25th at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square.