Film Reviews

REVIEW: Best of Enemies

Hot Docs 2015


USA, 87 min.
Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
International Premiere

Director Morgan Neville follows his excellent Oscar-winning doc Twenty Feet from Stardom with another solid hit, Best of Enemies. Directed by Neville and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash’s America), the film puts TV news on the hotseat as they mine the archive of a turning point in pop media history. The time is 1968 and America is on the cusp on change as both political parties rally at their respective conventions and the three TV networks scramble to win the all-important ratings game. ABC makes a bold leap by declining to cover the conventions in full and opts to punctuate and summarize the coverage with political commentary by great debaters from both the right and the left. Contemporary punditry in TV is born.

The players in this boxing match of intelligence and wordsmithery are two heavyweights. In the left corner sits Gore Vidal—author, provocateur, and bon vivant—and in the right corner sits William F. Buckley, Jr.—editor, moralizer, and all-around square. The gloves come off, and TV and politics alike are forever changed.

Best of Enemies presents highlights of the well-versed grudge match between Vidal and Buckley as the two wage war in a thrilling (and often hilarious) tête-à-tête. The two truly seem to hate each other as they trade witty barbs, zingers, and bombs. The level of debate seen in Best of Enemies is more intelligent and entertaining than any political commentary that succeeded it, and Neville and Gordon shrewdly find the bitter rivalry between the pundits as a fascinating confrontation between the clash of ideologies percolating in America. Vidal and Buckley both firmly see in one another the very embodiment of the political philosophy they abhor. The personal, as they say, is political.

Best of Enemies shows the bitter feud evolve from a relatively civil trading of ideas and insults to a blowout that plays like a 1960s precursor to The Jerry Springer Show. It’s great entertainment even fifty years later, especially whenever the film cuts to the amusingly awkward interjections by newsman Howard K. Smith as he tries to process the proceedings for the huge mainstream audience at home. When Vidal eggs on Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley loses his cool and calls the liberal pundit a queer, you see him grimacing with his pen and hitting back, “I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered,” Best of Enemies reveals how trash TV was born out of an intellectual debate from two of the medium’s most eloquent broadcasters. These political animals are a hoot.

Buckley’s loss of composure defines the film as Best of Enemies reveals how far the medium has come (and fallen). Nowadays, an exchange of “crypto-Nazi”/”queer” between two distinguished commentators would send audiences a-Twitter and make or break careers with viral force. Social media didn’t exist in the 60s, however, and Best of Enemies shows how the Vidal/Buckley debates/brouhahas tapped into a greater cultural hunger as the content of low-level player ABC caught the attention of the popular press around America, inspiring other networks to recreate the same water cooler fodder.

Neville and Gordon play the archival footage of Vidal and Buckley amidst a scattering of talking heads from broadcasting and academia that weigh in on the significance of the debates within history and illuminate the characters and egos on either side of the ring. Each boxer has his own corner team—biographers and cut men alike—who take sides with either player, showing both the success and fallout of the debates as the best minds of America’s next generation call the match one way or the other.

Best of Enemies digs within the battle that wages between these two minds as it shows how far a personal grudge can take a person away from the very values he or she represents, for the exchange of enlightened debate to serve the country simply became a personal showdown of egos. Follow-up footage recounts how Buckley was especially haunted by his on-air slip up, essentially defined as a textbook example of a journalism no-no, while Vidal equally despised his rival until the very end of his life. Best of Enemies doesn’t let the audience hear from either man directly, for Buckley had passed prior to production while Vidal died during production. (Neville noted at the film’s post-screening Q&A that his team interviewed Vidal for the film, but his testimony risked turning the film into a one-side debate and hence was omitted.)

Neville and Gordon instead let Vidal and Buckley speak of their rivalry through their diaries. In a smart bit of casting, Best of Enemies has Kelsey Grammar read Buckley’s transcriptions while John Lithgow gives voice to Vidal’s words. Both actors bring their characters to life with fresh dramatic interpretations—the effect is akin to the reading of Marilyn Monroe’s confessions in Liz Garbus’s Love, Marilyn —and lets the contemporary seep into the study of this political showdown. Each man comes to life, for his private thoughts and public words still ring true to the stereotypical divides between the right and the left. The presence of Grammar and Lithgow, finally, underscores how audiences of today don’t quite have a set of rivals to match Vidal and Buckley, although every channel offers a grander circus than the next. Best of Enemies is a great and engrossing case study in media history.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Fri, Apr 24 7:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sun, Apr 26 3:15 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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