Best of Enemies: The Birth of Political Punditry

For Your Consideration rounds-up and reviews new films that may hold Oscar contention. Best of Enemies, a new documentary, opens today nationwide.

Before there was Fox News or widespread political punditry, there was an attempt by mainstream media to broadcast the truth and let the viewer make half-way predicated decisions. All of that changed when ABC, the third most popular of the three big networks (CBS & NBC left ABC in the dust), decided to opt out of showing “gavel to gavel” coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and instead, bring in the two most popular heavyweight wordsmiths of the day to “duke it out.” What ABC unknowingly created was a hybrid slight on information and heavy on entertainment, and the final stage of Marshall MacLuhan’s edict that the “medium is the message.”

Filmmakers Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story) have produced the surprisingly entertaining and sobering documentary Best of Enemies, a chronicle of the events leading up to and following the historic on camera debate between these two “towering intellectuals” that helped rocket ABC to number one, and bring into question the very nature of public discourse and information that we are still crawling from the wreckage of today.

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The name calling heard ’round the world. Buckley on the offense.

William F. Buckley was the Editor-in-Chief of the “National Review,” a mouthpiece for the Conservative movement, as well as host of the weekly interview program “Firing Line.” He ushered in the new era of Christianity-cum-Republican politics when his attack of the left wing helped elect Ronald Reagan for President. Snobbish, tempestuous, pretentious and affected, Buckley was a household name and source countless impersonations across the country. Gore Vidal was the country’s most celebrated novelist, having penned the 1948 shocker “The City and The Pillar” which was the first mainstream book to depict homosexuality as a common, unapologetic lifestyle. From there, his biographies of Lincoln, Burr, and Washington redefined the historical novel and reinvented fiction. As far left as his counterpart was to the right, Vidal was also an East Coast intellectual, with a successful career in theatre, film and print, and an unsuccessful political record. While cut from the same WASP-y cloth, the two men’s politics could not be farther apart.

Hired by ABC  to discuss and debate the two Conventions, Vidal and Buckley instead attacked each other with mounting vitriol that devolved into name-calling and threats of violence. What motivated these two men is the main subject of the film, which uses incredibly curated archival footage, not the least of which includes live feeds prior to and following news stand-ups and anchoring segments. That this ground-breaking debate would also take place during one of the most turbulent years of the sixties, when the country was politically stalled within rhetoric of the Vietnam war, racial injustices and gender inequality, is itself a remarkable byproduct. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was ground zero for political protests and rioting, and the nation turned nightly to ABC to watch these politically charged debates.

Outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, riots in Chicago
Outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, riots in Chicago

What’s most fascinating about Best of Enemies is when the filmmakers focus on the years following the debates. Much would continue happening to Buckley and Vidal, but it’s most apparent that in their own way, they were haunted by the event, each continuing to stir up their rivalry with libel suits and countersuits. In fact, the filmmakers posit that Vidal outlived Buckley just so he could have the last word on their bitter enmity.

We are left today with the fallout these events have colored. From a myriad of cable news networks, to comedians with news skewering programs and the most sensationalistic rhetoric becoming Youtube fodder, Best of Enemies analyzes the dark side of broadcast news, borne of a simpler time. To think that not long ago, debate fostered information and understanding, the final quote of the film, that when people are not sharing ideas, “…they’re not living in the same place,” is the most salient point made. We now live in the shadow of these events, and daily witness the chilling byproduct of a war of words colder than any outcome Buckley or Vidal could have ever imagined.

Watch the trailer:

 

About Wade Sheeler 152 Articles

Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he’ll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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