Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal

Ostensibly, they both came to debate, but they had very different agendas. William F. Buckley, Jr. was there to present a cogent world view, while Gore Vidal came to engage in character assassination. Nearly as many sparks flew on the makeshift ABC News set as on the streets of Chicago when the conservative and leftist commentators occasionally discussed the 1968 party conventions. Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon chronicle the blow-by-blow in Best of Enemies (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The media loves to remind us Buckley lost his cool with Vidal, calling him a “queer” and offering him a punch in the face. They usually neglect to mention Vidal was goading him, calling him a “crypto-nazi,” as if Buckley would have anything to do with National Socialism. To their credit, Neville & Gordon give viewers the full context, including the fact that Vidal agreed to his ten debates with Buckley with the explicit intention of getting personal, in the nastiest, most destructive way possible. It is also rather eye-opening to hear how Vidal pre-tested his “ad libs” with a sympathetic press corps.

Logically, a good deal of Enemies is devoted to the verbal blood sport of their convention debates. However, there is a fair degree of media analysis, arguing Buckley v. Vidal was the watershed moment that unleashed a tidal wave of full throated punditry. Perhaps, but what is most striking is how cut-rate the ABC News operation was in 1968, a time when the networks did not have a heck of a lot of competition. The ABC convention operation was so cheap, their prefab convention soundstage literally collapsed, forcing them to use a makeshift replacement many considered an improvement.

In addition to generous archival clips of the combatants, Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow also read from the assorted writings of Buckley and Vidal, respectively, with all the appropriate feeling and attitude they demand. Neville, Gordon, and their editor Aaron Wickenden keep it snappy and never get bogged down with talking head analysis. Most importantly, they do not play favorites in the way they present the controversies.

Sadly, Buckley passed away in 2008, but it is nice to hear him again, even under what were frustrating circumstances for him. Evidently, the filmmakers were able to interview Vidal before his death, but according to the directors’ notes in the media kit, he was so bitter and off-putting they declined to use the footage. That says plenty. Recommended as a time capsule of late 1960s politics loaded with sarcasm, Best of Enemies opens this Friday (7/31) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.