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Sixties Documentary Revisits Legendary Debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley

Best of Enemies

Film Review by Kam Williams

Sixties Documentary Revisits Legendary Debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. were among the most brilliant and articulate minds of their generation. The pair were also polar opposites, politically, which made the idea of hiring them to appear in a series of televised debates an absolute stroke of genius.   

Best of Enemies, film review, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jr

This was the brainchild of ABC-TV back in 1968, at a time when the network’s news department lagged far behind both CBS and NBC in the ratings. The plan was to have the liberal Vidal and conservative Buckley square-off during its coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions being staged that summer in Chicago and Miami Beach, respectively.

Arranging the showdown proved to be easier said than done, since the men not only hated each other politically, but personally as well. After all, Buckley saw himself as the defender of old-fashioned values and the status quo in the face of the Sixties’ counter-cultural revolution demanding equal rights for blacks, gays, women and other oppressed groups.

As expected, sparks flew during the spirited tete-a-tetes marked as much by effete Buckley’s arcane syntax as by firebrand Vidal iconoclastic comments. However, because neither participant wanted to lose, what began as sophisticated intellectual analysis eventually degenerated into an exchange of insults.

When Vidal referred to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi,” he lost his composure and called his opponent a “queer.” A defamation lawsuit and counter-suit ensued, and the litigation would drag on for years.

Co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies is a fascinating documentary which revisits a seminal moment in the history of TV. For, the explosive Vidal-Buckley arguments over hot-button topics ranging from religion to sexuality served to usher in a new era in terms of discourse over the airwaves.

Besides archival footage of the debates, the conventions and anti-war demonstrations raging right outside, the film features commentary by luminaries like Frank Rich, John McWhorter and the late Christopher Hitchens. A must-see account of the birth of passionate, television punditry.

Excellent (4 stars)

Rated  R for sexuality, nudity and profanity

Running time: 88 minutes

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures / Magnet Releasing

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