A review of a documentary that re-examines the polarizing Vidal/Buckley debates of 1968. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
For better or for worse, we’ll never again see television quite like that documented in the compelling “Best of Enemies,” which returns us to the summer of 1968 and the historic series of televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal. Airing on ABC during the Republican and Democratic political conventions, it was less debate than eerily fascinating posturing. The two men, who clearly despised each other, leaned back in their armchairs and unleashed silky torrents of words; each curdling the other’s arguments while barely deigning to gaze at his opponent.
Documentarians Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon have reassembled that footage, cutting it into an entertaining film that combines the 1968 debates with contemporary commentary from journalists, linguists and associates of Buckley and Vidal. (Watch for a few unexpected cameos: an absurdly handsome Paul Newman; a stirring excerpt of “Star-Spangled Banner” performed by Aretha Franklin; a very young Sam Donaldson.) But you’ll most remember hearing Vidal describing Buckley as a right-wing “commentator,” with sly emphasis on the first two syllables; or observing that Buckley really did seem to be literally looking down his nose; or watching, breathlessly, their most notorious on-air confrontation, which began with “Just shut up a minute” and ended with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and a sneering Buckley retorting: “Now listen, you queer …” (Dick Cavett wryly recalled the response: “The network shat.”)
The debates didn’t add up to much, but viewers loved them. Long after the debates were done, the duo continued their public argument, with dueling articles in Esquire, a lawsuit and a countersuit. Vidal, we’re told by one of his longtime friends, was determined to outlive Buckley, “waiting around” in order to get the last word, and he did. But I’ll give the last word to Buckley here, in his trademark languid drone. There is, he noted presciently in the debates’ epilogue, “an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.”
Movie Review ★★★
‘Best of Enemies,’ a documentary directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. 87 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content/nudity and for language. Seven Gables.