An impeccably crafted documentary that brings history to lifeEntertainment News, Movie Review, Section 4A Thursday, August 20th, 2015
In decades past, political pundits referred to the final few weeks leading to the presidential election as the “silly season” of politics. Nowadays, the silly season is more or less the three years leading up to the election, and if you haven’t noticed it, the three-ring circus that is the Donald Trump-led Republican nomination contest and the vicious (and a little odd) fighting between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are more than a little silly. There are a lot of reasons that American politics have devolved to the point where a racist reality TV star could be leading the Republican field and Democratic activists could be losing friends in arguments over candidates who have basically the same positions. Arguably the biggest reason is the extreme polarity of political discourse in the United States.
Compromise, mutual understanding and respect are almost nonexistent in our political discussions (and I am hardly innocent in this). Liberals blame Fox News, and conservatives blame the so-called “liberal media,” when neither of them are not just simply calling the other side degenerate idiots. Again, it’s a complicated process, but the fantastic new documentary The Best of Enemies makes the case that the demon seed of this horrible situation can be traced to the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
The debates between Vidal and Buckley were not an accident. In 1968, ABC’s new division was a distant third in competition with CBS and NBC, and at the time, the coverage of the presidential nominating conventions were big news and drew big ratings. This is not just because politics in the 1960s were so dynamic and dire but because back then the nominations were not done deals before the conventions; the candidates were actually chosen there.
In order to create excitement for their coverage, ABC decided to pit the two most entertaining political wits of their generation against each other. Buckley, the father of the modern conservative movement, ran the most influential right wing magazine in the country, and his effete, WASP affect defined Ivy League country club Republicanism. He was witty, and as long as he wasn’t insulting you, very funny. Vidal was his perfect foil: An erudite bon vivant, he was Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, a barely closeted gay man (in 1968!), and the author of Myra Breckinridge, the scandalous, high-camp satirical novel about transsexuality. His insults were even more pointed and funnier.
As The Best Enemies show, the debates themselves were short and rarely ever touched on the actual issues. They were mostly a forum for Vidal and Buckley to insult each other and mock the politics of their opponents. They’re wildly entertaining to watch (especially when Vidal insinuates Buckley is gay and Buckley has a gay panic meltdown). Nowadays, it’s pretty rare to see people that smart and articulate be so hilariously mean to each other on a news show.
Writer-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon impeccably craft the story of the debates and their legacy. Using celebrity voiceover (Kelsey Grammar reading Buckley’s letters and John Lithgow Vidal’s), accessible academic commentary and taut editing, Neville and Oscar-winner Gordon (for 20 Feet from Stardom) bring the history to life and explain why it matters.
Best of Enemies
Written and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Featuring Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.
Opens at Landmark Hillcrest Aug. 21
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