PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

The Media Circus Begins in ‘Best of Enemies’

This gripping documentary about the invective-slinging 1968 William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal debates isn’t a celebration of intellectual combat, it’s an original-sin tale for where TV news went wrong.


Best of Enemies

Director: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Rated: NR
Year: 2014
Release date: 2015-07-31 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

Best of Enemies is a fascinating film about brilliant people behaving stupidly. It would be reassuring in a way to think that in the distant past, there was a time when American intellectuals could duke it out on the public stage before a mass audience held rapt by the sight and sound of ideas being wrestled into coherent form. We know such things don’t happen anymore. How many Americans can even name two intellectuals to have such a debate?

We also know that not so long ago, the country’s baseline anti-intellectualism had receded (albeit briefly) to the point where you could actually have prominent writers like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley appear on a TV show and assume that people would not only know who they were, but want to hear what they had to say. These days, nobody gives Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon the prime slot on talk shows and asks them what they think about current issues.

In 1968, even though the revolt against the elites -- conservatives versus the Eastern Ivy League elites, and liberals against the corporate-military state elites -- was in full swing, a network decided that putting two of the country’s most prominently gleeful snobs up against each other would make for smashing television. That year, CBS and NBC were covering both parties’ presidential conventions as they always did: filming it all from gavel to gavel, reporters and camera crews everywhere. Flooding the zone, they call it today. ABC, however, had fewer resources, being third in the ratings (as one network executive says in the film, if there were four networks, they’d have been fourth). So ABC decided on more of an express round-up style of coverage that would be highlighted by one hell of a two-ring circus: A ten-night debate between Vidal and Buckley.

As Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s nimble fox of a documentary shows, the result was great television. But it was hardly the second coming of the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates. The two men were incredible self-invented creatures -- it's difficult to imagine such men existing today, much less achieving the stature today that they had back then. Both were outsiders to some degree but had found their way into the ruling class, where their affected mannerisms and drawling mid-Atlantic elocutions (those long looping sentences have all the confident laze of men who feel they must never rush for anyone) were all part of their theatrical self-invention.

Both were rebels, albeit ones with plummy accents. Buckley’s first book, 1951’s God and Man at Yale, challenged liberal orthodoxy in academia at a time when conservatism was mostly the province of anti-intellectual reactionaries only. Vidal’s 1946 novel The City and the Pillar shocked mainstream society with its open embrace of homosexuality and his radical and cynical political writings went strongly against the grain of the straight-arrow pro-war Establishment Democratic circles he ran in (Kennedys and the like). Both were creatures of new media, loving nothing more than showing up on some TV show or another and cutting their rivals to pieces. Being so alike, naturally they hated each other and were destined to meet on the field of rhetorical battle.

They were supposed to debate the conventions. The filmmakers and their snappy gathering of biographers and media commentators -- everyone from Dick Cavett to the late great Christopher Hitchens, Todd Gitlin, and Andrew Sullivan -- argue that that election year was one of those fault lines that are still setting off aftershocks today. With Nixon in the ascendancy and the Buckley-approved Ronald Reagan in the wings, the new conservative movement -- midwifed in part by Buckley’s magazine National Review -- was taking aim at the pinko radicals and inner-city rioters they thought were gutting America. Meanwhile, liberals were in their generational assault on the rigid moralities, militarism and unquestioning patriotism of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”. It wasn’t a conflict of ideas so much as it was two groups convinced the other was intrinsically immoral and un-American.

While those forces fought on the floor of the Republican convention in Miami and on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic convention, Buckley and Vidal squared off on TV. Substance immediately fell to the side in favor of sniping and belligerence. Vidal, who apparently hired a researcher and crowd-tested his supposedly ad-libbed jokes on reporters beforehand (he was, after all, an old Hollywood hand), came loaded for bear. Buckley, like the good Yalie he was, had prepped for the debate by going boating for a week beforehand with friends, perhaps hoping to get a gentleman’s C.

It’s a fascinating performance. As Vidal tries to nail Buckley down on Republican positions, Buckley ducks and parries, sniping apart Vidal’s arguments but not quite engaging with them. Vidal is focused and predatory, that slight mocking grin always shadowing his lips and betraying his love of the hunt. Buckley astutely intuits Vidal’s “feline” quality. Buckley tries to rise above or dismiss Vidal’s toying hostility, with those long and winding curlicues of argument and high-handed stylistics (there are few people alive, then or now, who could seem so natural using the word “balderdash” on national TV).

The result is more high-handed squabble than argument. The boxing-ring bell the filmmakers ding before each clip quickly seems appropriate. While Vidal’s attacks on conservative positions are better constructed than Buckley’s dissembling responses (that researcher earned their pay), it’s an ugly performance. Buckley, even with his indefensible defense of the Vietnam War, seems to believe what he is saying. It’s harder to see what Vidal believes in, besides the fight.

The “debate” truly crumples when in Chicago they argue over the appropriateness of protesters waving Viet Cong flags. Buckley compares them, as all conservatives seemingly must to some liberal or another eventually, to appeasers of the Nazis. Vidal says to “shut up a minute” and then states:

…the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.

Without missing a beat, a clenched-jaw Buckley hisses:

Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face … and you’ll stay plastered.

Neither man ever truly escaped that exchange. Buckley wrestled with the aftermath, publishing a long piece in Esquire about how appropriate it was for him to answer one slur with another. (At the time, for a conservative like Buckley to have any second thoughts about using a homophobic slur, especially after being provoked, is quite surprising.) Then Vidal answered with his own piece on the matter, which included the inference that Buckley was a closeted gay. Buckley sued for libel. By some accounts, both were haunted by the exchange, and their inability to get the best of the other, to the end of their days.

It would have been easy to turn Best of Enemies into a giddy, retro pretend celebration of a time when snooty smartypants like Vidal and Buckley entranced the mass culture. But after delivering a crackling, clever film about what is essentially a poorly-filmed fight between two authors, the filmmakers find a different message. Media professor Eric Alterman is one of the most pointed of the film’s non-eulogizers, and he sums the debates up well. The debates were, he argues, “a harbinger of an unhappy future.” A montage of shouting-head political debate programs follows.

The two big thinkers Buckley and Vidal were supposed to engage in a titanic intellectual debate. They ended up just calling names and spitting out ad hominem attacks. Everybody is still following their lead today. Only nobody involved in today’s “debates” can comfortably quote Pericles.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.