In the summer of 1968 television news changed forever. Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired two towering public intellectuals to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. William F. Buckley Jr. was a leading light of the new conservative movement. A Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal was a leftist novelist and polemicist. Armed with deep-seated distrust and enmity, Vidal and Buckley believed each other's political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight battle, they pummeled out policy and personal insult—their explosive exchanges devolving into vitriolic name-calling. Live and unscripted, they kept viewers riveted. Ratings for ABC News skyrocketed. And a new era in public discourse was born.
Turn to any cable news channel right now, and there's a pretty good chance you'll stumble across two talking heads yelling at each other. And I mean really yelling at each other. With veins bulging, voices raised to a fevered pitch, and a blood-thirsty hunger for ratings in their eyes, the pundits of today are more like verbal gladiators than traditional journalists... and apparently we have Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. to thank for all the fireworks. An eye-opening examination of political conflict and media sensationalism, 'Best of Enemies' chronicles a series of 1968 debates between both men, revealing the lasting effects of their heated discourse and the perpetual divide between left and right.
In 1968, faced with struggling ratings, ABC decided to spice up their news coverage with ten debates between famed liberal intellectual Gore Vidal and famed conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr.. Their televised disputes were captured during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, serving as the perfect backdrop for the pair's increasingly heated disagreements about politics and American culture. Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, 'Best of Enemies' recounts these "spirited" verbal spars with archive clips, commentary from contemporary pundits, interviews with family and friends, and background information about each debater.
Structured almost like the highlights reel of a boxing match, the majority of the documentary offers a play-by-play recap of the debates through extensive clips from the original broadcasts, allowing the duo's eloquently articulated vitriol to speak for itself. The filmmakers also do a good job of setting the stage by gradually filling the audience in on both men's upbringing and views, highlighting some of the surprising similarities and not so surprising differences between them. To this end, the film is also peppered with footage from the pair's other TV appearances throughout the years and recitals of their written pieces as read by John Lithgow (subbing in for Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (subbing in for Buckley). Likewise, recent talking head interviews with journalists, pundits, and relatives like Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Reid Buckley, and Dick Cavett pad out the rest of the runtime.
In practice, this escalating mixture of material creates a fairly well-rounded and briskly paced excursion into the highs and lows of political discourse. Through Buckley and Vidal's gradually devolving battle of wits, the filmmakers touch upon the eternal divide between liberal and conservative philosophy, painting a general picture of each ideology's views on government, morality, and sexuality. And though both viewpoints are addressed, the filmmakers wisely avoid any bias toward either direction. Instead, they let the bickering twosome levy charges of repression, bigotry, deviancy, and corruption all on their own.
And beyond the actual content of Vidal and Buckley's arguments, the documentary really becomes an examination of debate strategy itself. Details on both men's rigorous preparation for the event are shared, and commentators elaborate on the differing styles between their equally smug and self-satisfied approaches. Likewise, the filmmakers ultimately draw a direct connection between the ratings success of the original debates and the media's continued reliance on negative, sensationalized punditry. In essence, the unsavory (and at the time quite unprecedented) personal attacks that cap off the Vidal/Buckley cage match are positioned as the prototypes for the immature insult-laden "news" programs that are now so common today.
With that said, there is a pervading sense that the documentary is really only scratching the surface of these potentially fascinating parallels and the internal machinations of both debaters. This is understandable, of course, as a more in-depth examination would have likely led to a prohibitive runtime and pacing concerns, but there are times when I wish the filmmakers delved a bit more into Vidal and Buckley's larger careers and views. Likewise, the ultimate finale of the debate does come across as a tad anticlimactic –- though, that's likely only because the traded slurs between each contender here are relatively tame compared to the more distressing insults now lobbied during contemporary debates.
Thankfully, the movie does do a solid job of addressing the broadcast's lingering effects on both men, revealing the lasting obsession and personal scars that the battle caused. By the time the credits roll, both former titans of political relevancy are depicted as little more than a pair of sad old men forced into the looming shadow of obsolescence -- a shadow they ironically helped cast by ushering in the age of televised pundits.
As Buckley and Vidal debate politics, sex, race, religion, and income inequality, the film reveals the eternal (and distressingly still relevant) struggle seemingly inherent to our Democracy. And as the TV ratings only increase while both men become progressively antagonistic, the movie also reveals viewers' eternal bloodlust for good-old-fashioned conflict. Smart and engaging, 'Best of Enemies' chronicles a heated argument between two equally matched men. Two equally matched men that turn intellectual diction and deceptively eloquent Mid-Atlantic affectations into a defining verbal bloodbath.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia brings 'Best of Enemies' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc that comes housed inside a standard keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a traditional menu screen. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Despite a few understandable inconsistencies, the image looks solid throughout.
Culled from a variety of sources, including extended clips from archival standard definition broadcast footage, the video quality varies throughout and there are some signs of inherent grain, analog artifacts, and damage. With that said, even the roughest material is still very watchable. Likewise, the newly recorded interviews look quite good with pleasing clarity and detail. Colors also vary depending on the source, but the modern footage carries a natural palette and the black and white material features a mostly steady gray scale. It should be noted, however, that the filmmakers seem to have gone with gray bars for the 4:3 portions of the documentary and there is some faint compression visible in black portions of the screen.
Considering the unavoidable limitations tied to some of the footage used, 'Best of Enemies' comes to Blu-ray with a very respectable transfer.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track along with English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. Modest yet effective, the audio gets the job done with no major issues.
With the exception of minor crackle found in some of the older footage, dialogue is clear and clean throughout, allowing us to hear each and every eloquent insult and verbal jab. Given the documentary nature of the film, the soundstage is comparatively restrained, but there are some key effects used to enhance the mood here and there. Likewise, the music comes through with solid range, separation, and even surround presence -- adding a bit more drama and excitement to the proceedings.
While the sound design is relatively basic, this is a dialogue driven documentary, and on that front the mix serves the content well.
'Best of Enemies' is a captivating and smart examination of political discourse and media sensationalism. Through the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, the filmmakers shine a light on the eternal divide between left and right. The video and audio are both rather modest but solid, and supplements include over an hour's worth of additional interview material. With its increasingly relevant parallels to our current election news cycle, this is the perfect documentary for political junkies. Recommended.