Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
In their latest film, “Best of Enemies,” directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon capture the historic verbal jousting matches between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions.
The two wordsmiths’ interactions, full of barely constrained contempt and vicious vocabularies, expressed something often missing from political discourse in today’s cable and talk radio punditry.
Vidal was a man of the left who publicly espoused progressive viewpoints, while Buckley was a rightwing ideologue who gave voice to and, according to “Enemies,” helped shape contemporary conservatism.
As the filmmakers reveal, the idea to pit Vidal against Buckley was an effort to boost the sagging ratings of ABC News during the network’s coverage of the political conventions. The station’s plan quickly caught fire. The pair often caught the hapless moderator, ABC News anchorman Howard K. Smith, in the crossfire.
Compare the debate to, for instance, the Fox News show “The Five.” The show’s conceit is that four right-of-center panelists discuss the issues of the day with a fifth talking head supposedly representing the “left.” One of these left-representatives once said, of Julian Assange, “This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States… illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”
With “liberals” like that, who needs fascists? Vidal, on the other hand, was the real deal.
He was a son of the New Deal who advocated socialism on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” On live television, he defended the right of antiwar protesters to fly the Viet Cong flag, after moderator Smith likened it to flying the swastika during WWII. Vidal denounced the Vietnam War, as well as America’s income inequality and repressive police tactics. “The point of American democracy is that you can express any point of view you want,” he said.
And when Buckley interrupted, Vidal snapped, “Shut up a minute.”
Their exchange triggered a collision course between Vidal and Buckley. This is the best known segment of their debate—a spontaneous moment where the two almost resorted to fisticuffs on live TV after Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-nazi" and a sneering Buckley derided Vidal as a "queer."
Overall, “Best of Enemies” is a superbly made nonfiction film with characters and storytelling as compelling as that of a Hollywood feature. It is cinematically clever, cutting from aerial bombardments of Vietnamese rice paddies and rivers to a shot of Chicago's rivers.
“Enemies” is very insightful. In addition to delving into the sexual preference of Vidal—who openly championed homosexuality in his novels—the filmmakers raise questions about the married Buckley. “Enemies” explores rumors as to whether or not Buckley was clandestinely gay. Was there an underlying sexual tension between the two master debaters when they went head-to-head?
These intellectual adversaries were startlingly alike. They were both products of the Eastern elite with distinctive speaking voices. Both ran for (and lost) political office and hobnobbed with electoral superstars—Vidal, who was related to Jacqueline Kennedy, with JFK; Buckley with Ronald Reagan.
“Best of Enemies” is a sort of intellectual thriller, a must-see for those on the right and left who take ideas and the public discourse seriously. How rare to see a true leftist holding forth at length on broadcast television.
“Best of Enemies” begins its U.S. and Canadian theatrical release on July 31. For more info see: www.magpictures.com/bestofenemies/.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.” His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).