You can’t always pinpoint the exact point of a revolution; more often than not it is a combination of events that when mixed together at just the right times ignites a spark. However, as the new documentary from Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, “Best of Enemies,” shows us, the series of televised debates between political pundits Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. provided a specific moment that changed so much. Witness the birth of the modern news media in this enthralling and fast-hitting doc.
It was the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The country was dealing with Vietnam, the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of other issues that were leading to a boiling pot. ABC was practically an afterthought in the news field, so to help raise its national convention coverage, it decided to pair two well-known pundits in a series of debates. Vidal was a liberal, Buckley a conservative; aside from being at nearly polar opposites on the political spectrum, both men did little to hide their actual contempt for each other.
ABC hoped to bill their debates as some kind of political boxing match, and “Best of Enemies” embraces that angle, displaying these men as heavyweights and their nightly debates as rounds of verbal bloodbath in spectacular fashion.
Each new round the film perfectly delivers the growing tension not only between the two men, but the surroundings they were inhabiting. The editing is fast-paced as the two men sparred with one another. The film is not lengthy at 87 minutes, but it feels like a whirlwind with back-and-forth between the subjects and Gordon and Neville’s showcasing of it. Combine that with an energetic and operatic score from Jonathan Kirkscey and you quickly find yourself wrapped in these men’s strife.
It would have been so easy for Gordon and Neville to use this infamous pairing and their debates as a thorough examination of how the news media has degenerated to biased and argumentative displays rather than actual news. Instead, they focus intently on the moment in time when the tide turned. Vidal, Buckley and ABC did not intend to set the media down the road it is now on, but on the second to last night of the debates, the knock out punch was given when Buckley verbally attacked Vidal by insinuating he was gay.
Gordon and Neville stick on that moment like an instant replay of a knockout. They play it over and over, and each time its impact is felt more and more. This one sentence is then echoed in the film’s closing credits as clips from CNN, Fox, and other news channels play with their pundits yelling and demeaning each other calling it a debate.
“Best of Enemies” paints how much Vidal and Buckley hated each other, even well beyond the debates were over. But as film shows footage of their final round together during the 1968 conventions, both men knew that neither of them had come out on top. Gordon and Neville built it as a prize fight, but they reveal it to be a draw, with us as the bouts biggest losers.
It is a masterful documentary; rich with details and style, and leaves you utter gut-checked as the credits roll. “Best of Enemies” is easily one of the best documentaries of the year. Unlike the news channels born from its subjects, this should be appointment viewing.