“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” – Gore Vidal
“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” – William F Buckley, jnr.
In 1968, in the United States, the airwaves were ruled by two broadcasting networks in NBC and CBS. They had the money and they had the facilities. And as the Democratic and Republic Nominating Conventions arrived, in Chicago and Miami, the distant third place network, ABC, had to do something to increase their flagging ratings. Up to this point their broadcasting had been very…British in nature – stern looking men reading dry dispatches in front of bland backdrops. What they need, they thought, is a public figure – one given to espousing well-educated political opinions – to represent each side of the political conflict. They would engage in lively political debate during the broadcasts and would bring ABC, only able to afford 90 minutes of airtime a night, back in line with the other two networks. ABC were sure they had a powerful broadcasting plan. What they got, however, would change the landscape of American broadcast television forever.
A life-long liberal, democrat and, as he would later term himself, “anti-anticommunist” on the one hand, Gore Vidal, and his exact opposite in every conceivable political and moral way, on the other, William F Buckley. Both men were prodigious writers, both men were from as close as America has to political royalty, and both men, crucially for the debates (though its immensity unknown to ABC at the time), having opinions matched in strength only by their disdain for each other.
The story of these televised debates is told to us in the fantastic new film Best of Enemies. Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, who gave us the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies takes us behind the scenes of these ground-breaking debates, showing us these two intellectual titans at war and repose. Through incredible archive footage and contemporary interviews, it gives us context and commentary, from an array of talking heads (most notably Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett and Noam Chomsky) and the two combatants themselves in later life. Best of Enemies is presented as a contest from the start. Much like a boxing documentary, the battleground is laid out (we are told of ABC’s history and problems), the fighters are introduced (footage of both men’s previous television appearances (both were very honest about their desire to be television regulars in the political and literary worlds) gives a brief glimpse of what to expect) and round by round, the debates build in intensity until the final knock-out punch is delivered, as all pretence of actual political debate is laid aside in favour of ad hominem contempt and slander.
Best of Enemies does not takes sides during any of these debates. Instead, and this must have been very difficult to achieve given the manicheaist nature of the debates, the directors have allowed the natural rivalry of the two men to manifest itself organically through the material and they thus fall into their own roles without any interference. Some of the same ground had already been covered in Nicholas Wrathall’s masterful 2013 portrait Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, and yet there is very little repeated footage here. We can naturally be given to assume that the liberal homosexual Gore Vidal is the keeper of all things good and right, beset upon by the conservative oratorical gladiator that was Buckley – but this assumption would only be partly correct. Vidal himself had very little interest in debating the issues. He made a conscious decision very early on (even going as far as to script his own witty put-downs) to attack the man and not the policies, showing himself up to be every bit as bitter and resentful of Buckley as Buckley was of him. That Buckley resorted to crass insults and base language is a measure not so much of his own limitations, but of the type of game that Vidal was trying to draw him into, which was they type of game that, given both men’s backgrounds, Vidal could be forgiven for thinking was what he thought ABC wanted him to get into in the first place. He must have known that the two men were picked for a reason – Buckley had already apparently stated that the one person he would not sit in a studio was Gore Vidal.
Indeed, Buckley’s resorting to playground name-calling would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life. Coming into the debates, Buckley had a reputation as a fierce debater, but more than this, he was also considered an almost unbeatable one… he would go on to host nearly 1500 episodes of Firing Line. His command of the English language and its use in verbal warfare was unrivalled in the US at the time, and probably still is today. It’s not even really so much the name calling that rankled him, it was the manner in which he did so that let him down – he was only after all responding to being called a “crypto-fascist” on national television. He fell into Vidal’s trap, however, and in one moment of unthinking madness portrayed himself as the ignorant conservative that Vidal had been trying to label him from the start. That Vidal knew exactly what he was doing was apparent from the start – as the author of Myra Breckenridge (itself turned into a controversial film) and the startling The City and the Pillar (the first post-war novel to deal openly with homosexuality and which does not consider its protagonist defying social norms) Vidal was already something of a provocateur – and he considered himself Buckley’s equal in all measures intellectual.
It says something about the volatility of the times and the greatness of their rivalry that, given the reputations of both men, this series of incidences would in many ways go on to define their later years. And the battle did continue long after these debates were over – firstly in the national newspapers, each man writing column after column, still attacking the other, still defending themselves; and secondly in the courts, with libel case followed by counter-libel case. Though as the years moved on, so in some ways did Vidal. It was Buckley who, through his writing, strove every day to justify his behaviour, such was his shock and disbelief at being brought down to the level of cheap threats of violence from, well, pretty much the top of the public intellectual heap.
If this all seems to be overplaying the impact of what is basically black and white footage of two middle-aged men sitting in a studio talking about politics, make no mistake – it is every bit as tense as great sporting rivalries. There is something special about seeing people who are the greatest at what they do in full flight. The sheer joy of watching these two men talk is incredible – as ignorant as many of Buckley’s views were (he seemed to have a near infinite contempt for anything that was not he or his) there is still a thrill in the way he puts these into words. Both men speak and formulate their arguments like nobody does, or is able it seems, today. This is just one of the reasons that this is up there with the great bouts – this is Sugar Ray Leonard versus Roberto Duran, Riddick Bowe versus Evander Holyfield, and in its participants’ skill and its intensity it rises above the material and becomes that rare thing in films these days, something truly riveting.
Near the end of the film we are shown a brief sequence of modern day political commentators letting rip at each other and this only makes the Vidal/Buckley debates seem even better. The two great men started a tradition in televised political reporting that in the following 48 years nobody has proved worthy to continue. Where is the producer, today, willing to give two firebrands unfiltered airtime in the hope of generating outlaw commentary – where are the commentators able to provide it? Bill O’Reilly deals solely in vacuous volume, as do the rest of the Fox team, and Jeremy Paxman relies on the dull pounding thud of repetition to get his point across. I suppose Hitchens might have had the qualities to take up the mantle from Vidal though he proved himself to be just as ignorant as O’Reilly (though in a different way) and never really had the chance.
This is a terrific film then, one that will appeal to those interested in American history and those that value the spectacle of lively debate. It says something about Best of Enemies and the time that this covers that there was so much that could have been included in the film (the riots, for instance, for inciting which Bobby Seale was to be arrested) that would have been apposite and yet would merely have drawn one’s attention away from the main event. It is also a fantastic document of a ground-breaking time in American television, and how sanitised modern broadcasting is. More than this though, perhaps, it is a loving portrait of two of its greatest characters, and two of the great minds of the century.
Best of Enemies (screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 to great acclaim) was released into cinemas on the UK on Friday 24th July by DogWoof.
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Writers: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Stars: Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammer, John Lithgow
Runtime: 87 mins
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