There’s a kind of documentary that unearths an artifact from a not-so-distant past and polishes it up to remind us just how influential and relevant that artifact remains. “The Best of Enemies” is that kind of documentary, and the artifact in question is the William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal debates of the 1968 presidential election. Much like he did in his Oscar-winning doc “20 Feet From Stardom,” co-director Morgan Neville drills down into the origin story of how something came to be — in this case, television news — and shows how and why it is the way it is, giving credit where it’s due to those who might not have received it fully.
Neville and co-director Robert Gordon have put together an impressive film about the Buckley-Vidal debates, but also about the men themselves and their wide reaching influence on culture, from the right and the left. While Buckley was the godfather of the conservative movement and Vidal as lefty as they come, “The Best of Enemies” points to how just how similar the men were in many ways. Both had remarkably similar upbringings on the edges of the upper echelons of East Coast society, and became superb wordsmiths and cultural commentators who were capable of the cleverest and most slyly cutting remarks. They also were both highly aware of the power of television for furthering their presence and messages.
“The Best of Enemies” places a premium on providing the context for these debates, broadcast on third-place ABC, who could afford to take the risk. Held during the Republican and Democratic conventions that year, the charged cultural atmosphere colored the nature of the debates, and while both men prided themselves on elevating the discourse, the event ended with a swift slide into name-calling and personal attacks, which haunted them for years.
What “The Best of Enemies” illustrates is how this point-counterpoint format, which was essentially an untested Hail Mary pass in a grab for ratings, revolutionized television news, leading to the current shouty talking heads format that makes up the content on the 24-hour news cycle. But while the format has been copied, the true nature of the debate, marked by a certain high level of discourse and mutual respect, hasn’t necessarily been preserved. While Buckley and Vidal were avowed enemies of each others’ beliefs, they both held a deep respect for their words and the discussion itself. One hopes there’s still room for, and interest in, this kind of elevated conversation among equals in the public sphere.