Sundance 2015 Review: ‘Best of Enemies’ – One-Upmanship is Magic
In 1968, the ABC network – struggling to compete with its competitors’ coverage of the Republican National Convention – hit upon what was, at the time, a pretty novel idea. Instead of filming the entire event they would simply recap it at the end of the night, concluding with a televised debate between a notable conservative and a notable liberal. They just happened to pick two of the smartest, wittiest, and most venomous people alive, and produce some of the best damn television in history.
Best of Enemies tells the behind the scenes story of these ten debates between William F. Buckley Jr., who founded the influential conservative magazine National Review, and Gore Vidal, the author of Myra Breckinridge and, obviously, a steadfast liberal. By all accounts, including their own, these two men detested each other. You can feel the disdain coming off of the screen in waves. Best of Enemies probably would have been wholly satisfying if it had simply played all of the debates back to back and just rolled the credits afterwards.
But although directors Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash’s America) are canny enough to let these two captivating personalities do most of the entertaining for them, they also understand that these debates played a pivotal role in shaping American history. If nothing else, they definitely changed televised news forever. If you’ve ever had to put your fingers in your ears to drown out the insidious bile of one political pundit or another, you probably have ABC to blame.
Best of Enemies luxuriates in the brutal wordplay of Buckley and Vidal, yet ultimately comes down hard on the news outlets that perhaps learned all the wrong lessons from their serialized squabblings. The appeal of these debates stems not from placing one angry conservative in a room with an equally angry liberal and watching them duke it out, it stems from watching these two particular geniuses punch the hell out of each other with clever bon mots. William F. Buckley is more interesting when he’s thinking than any contemporary pundit is when they scream, and Gore Vidal’s deadpan delivery of devilish disrespect is just as delectable.
That these two brilliant minds accidentally helped contribute to the overall dumbing down of journalism is a bitter tragedy that Best of Enemies does not shy away from, even as it exalts the actual event that flushed television news down the tubes. It’s an enormously entertaining documentary that speaks volumes about contemporary journalism and the tumultuous political climate that gave birth to this unforgettable intellectual cage match. Best of Enemies is almost as smart, funny and vicious as Buckley and Vidal themselves.