BUCKLEY VS. VIDAL. 2 MEN. 10 DEBATES. TELEVISION WOULD NEVER BE THE SAME.
I’m writing this review in the midst of Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency. What started as an empty circus act, cherished by angry rightwing voters who feel left out, has turned into something threatening. Not once through his nasty campaign has the billionaire presented any kind of plan for something that has deserved to be taken seriously and debated. The 2016 presidential campaign has become a spectacle as unintellectual as they come. How amazing then to see a great documentary remind us of a time when both the left and the right were going through tumultuous times where ideas, and not just egos, clashed.
ABC trying something new
In 1968, Miami and Chicago were preparing for the Republican and Democratic conventions. So were the three TV networks. At the time, ABC News was less respected than its counterparts on CBS and NBC, which is probably why the network felt free to try something new. TV coverage of the conventions used to be static, but ABC News decided to invite two commentators, intellectuals from the left and the right. The conservative choice was William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review and the most prominent thinker within the modern conservative movement. The liberal choice was gay author Gore Vidal, a man Buckley loathed, perhaps because he was his intellectual equal.
Their first encounter in the studio became must-see TV, two sharp wits going at each other. It would be followed by debates that became sensational and increasingly heated until that moment during the Chicago riots when both men completely lost it…
Gloves are off – 24/7
Today we are used to seeing pundits battle each other, especially on cable. In almost every debate, the gloves seem to be off, and the novelty has worn off. Naturally, there has been a backlash. There’s a famous clip from 2004 where Jon Stewart is telling the liberal and conservative hosts of CNN’s Crossfire that they are “hurting America”. It all started with those Buckley/Vidal battles on ABC; audiences were fascinated by them and the floodgates opened.
Still, the intellectual level of the men’s conversations was completely different from what passes for debates on cable today. Viewers knew how elitist both men were, with their upper-class accents and effeminate mannerisms, but still took to them because they were funny, sharp and what they had to say was worth listening to. The filmmakers present the political context of both conventions well and build excitement around the debate clips, using Buckley and Vidal’s notes on how they felt about the encounters to give us further insight. The notes are read by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow as Buckley and Vidal; not only are they terrific choices because of their acting chops, but they also fit particularly well since each man’s political views are similar to the icon they’re playing.
Tension builds until that moment when Buckley and Vidal exploded in a way that just wasn’t seen on TV – we are made to understand that the former regretted his outburst for the rest of his life, while the latter was almost gleeful at having driven his opponent that far. Interviews with interesting people like literary critic Christopher Hitchens and Buckley’s colorful brother F. Reid provide a greater understanding of what made the two men tick.
Jon Stewart wasn’t entirely fair. The element of spectacle was obvious already in the Buckley/Vidal debates – just because it gets heated, even childish, it doesn’t mean that the discussion is worthless. It’s when the general conversation has no substance, only furor and bullying, as in the case of Trump, that we’re in trouble.
Best of Enemies 2015-U.S. 87 min. Color-B/W. Produced and directed by Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville. Screenplay: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville, Tom Graves. Voices of Kelsey Grammer, John Lithgow.
Last word: “We knew in the beginning we didn’t want to make a film with our arguments. We wanted to make a film about how we argue, and in the same way when you’re writing a story or an actor playing a role, you should never think of your characters as heroes or villains. You have to think of them as people first. That was something we kept reminding ourselves about. At one point, I remember us thinking there’s an intellectual story here, but what’s the emotional story here? Who are these guys, and what defines them and what drives them? That was really informative.” (Neville, The Moveable Feast)