Title: Best of Enemies
Director: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Political lines tend to be a point of division between many people, those with careers in the political spectrum and those with nothing more than the power of a vote. Usually, however, there is some common ground to be found, at least one issue on which people with conflicting views can agree. And then there are those individuals who are such polar opposites of each other that the notion of seeing and hearing a conversation between them is impossible to resist. That is the subject of this documentary, a review and analysis of two men, each emblematic of the extreme of their respective political movements.
Best of Enemies, which boasts one of Sundance’s best titles this year, begins by introducing its two personalities and the circumstances that brought them together. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a spirited debater and champion of conservatism in the United States. Gore Vidal was an outspoken liberal author fiercely prepared to win any argument that comes his way. These men’s dislike of each other is precisely what motivated ABC, described as a network that “would have been fourth in the ratings, but there were only three,” to hire them to debate each other on television during the Republican National Convention in 1968.
Pitting these two against each other is reminiscent of a relationship featured in a Sundance documentary from 2014, “Life Itself.” Yet while Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were always at odds, they were ultimately friends and both shared a deep love of movies. Buckley and Vidal, on the other hand, truly detested each other, and would hurl veiled and blatant insults at each other on a regular basis while on air that seemed to come from a very genuine and unforgiving place. Each of them believed deeply in what they were saying, but felt just as strongly about his opponent’s viewpoints and how completely preposterous and wrong they were.
Much of Best of Enemies is made up of clips of the ten debates in which Buckley and Vidal participated, and that is the most useful in seeing, understanding, and judging how these men operated and articulated their views. Hearing the tone, intonation, and vernacular in their voices is crucial to getting at who they were, two enormously influential players in the reshaping of television and its role in politics in the 1960s. It is also mesmerizing to see a time when those with different beliefs were actually featured together on the same news network watched by a wide variety of people, as opposed to present-day politically-skewing channels such as CNN and FOX News.
Neither Buckley nor Vidal is alive today, and thus they cannot respond directly to interview questions, though that may be for the best given how much animosity they felt towards each other. Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow are effective choices to speak some of their written words, and there are is so much archival footage of their interviews that they can be very well represented. These two magnetic figures were fascinating people, and the way in which they affected each other long after sharing the same stage is simply incredible. As it reaches its conclusion, this film becomes an exploration of their lives as defined by this crucial time in 1968. Best of Enemies is an effective historical canon and a strong, enthralling look at two men who spoke for their political beliefs in a time when America started watching.
This U.S. Documentary Competition entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with several more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer