This year’s Sundance film festival has already seen a number of striking documentary films, including “The Hunting Ground,” “Cartel Land” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Another real standout and perhaps the most entertaining film of them all was “Best of Enemies,” a doc that premiered Friday about a series of 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Directed by Morgan Neville (who won the Oscar last year for “20 Feet From Stardom”) and Robert Gordon, “Best of Enemies” is a history lesson that also manages to be extremely timely — a cautionary tale about how two extraordinarily articulate men helped pave the way for today’s climate of political nitwits spouting buzzwords in lieu of substantial discussion.
The film explores the 10 televised debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions between conservative firebrand Buckley and liberal provocateur Vidal. The debates, envisioned as a ratings grabber by third-place network ABC, turned into remarkable theater, with the two patrician intellectuals spewing insults in between discussions of the war in Vietnam, law and order on American streets, and the role of the federal government.
Beginning with sniping and deliciously catty swipes at each other, the appearances devolved to an infamous exchange in which Vidal labeled Buckley a neo-Nazi and Buckley blew up, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face.
It was a shocking breach of etiquette for Buckley, and one that Vidal came to consider a real victory over his bitter rival. The film makes it clear that it haunted Buckley for the remaining decades of his life, even as the attention given to the name-calling led the networks to embrace the verbal fisticuffs that now dominate political punditry.
After one Friday screening, much of the post-movie chatter was about how out of place the two men would be on today’s political landscape. The Republican party of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber hardly seems likely to embrace a man as studiously upper-crust as Buckley, while today’s timid Democrats would no doubt be scared to have the licentious Vidal speaking for them.
But the two men made serious policy discussions wickedly entertaining and decidedly personal, and Neville and Gordon knew that they had a gold mine in the debate footage that is the centerpiece of their movie. Crucially, the filmmakers also deftly supply additional material that puts everything in context and shows how Vidal and Buckley were both products of their time and precursors for what would follow.
At the end of the movie, Buckley is heard in voiceover bemoaning what became of political coverage: “There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.”
One of the chief pleasures of “Best of Enemies” is that it manages to be both.