A network desperate for ratings unwittingly ignites an iconic political firestorm in the fascinating documentary Best of Enemies.
In 1968, the populace of the United States suddenly found itself torn in half on several fronts. The escalating war in Vietnam pitted son against father. The Civil Rights movement set black against white. The growing women’s movement cast wife against husband. All of it was encapsulated in the rift between the two major political parties as each prepared for their upcoming Presidential conventions in August of that year. The Republicans would go first in Miami, followed closely by the Democrats in Chicago. All of it would be broadcast live into the homes of viewers by the willing networks… with one notable exception. Then a very distant third in a three-network race, ABC couldn’t afford to cover it all. They decided instead to limit their coverage and supplement it with commentary from two of the country’s most outspoken political pundits.
Standing in for the right would be the father of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley. The left would be represented by noted novelist Gore Vidal. Both wielded a rapier-like effectiveness in the art of repartee underscored by an unshakable belief in their own viewpoints. The discourse between them not only bolstered the relevancy of a nearly-forgotten network, but also changed televised political commentary forever.
Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us behind the scenes to dissect the personalities and parameters that made this such a quintessential moment in our history. It’s the backstory that gives this tale its teeth. The directors transform a nearly-forgotten footnote of political theater and restore it to its rightful setting as the foundation for all that came after. This is the Genesis chapter of the modern political bible.
Vidal and Buckley were the intellectual Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of their day. Both were equally matched in wit, wisdom and willpower. What made them most interesting to watch, much to the delight of ABC, was their unbridled pomposity. These were two combatants absolutely confident of their own positions and equally assured that the other represented a true danger to the country that they both held so dear. We can see the blood pressure of the opponents rise with each crashing blow. We also sense the hurt and fear that both men absorb as the tide turns from pride to personal.
It’s not a film for everyone. The allure of the story is in following the chess-like machinations of its main participants. The action is wickedly understated, but deeply damaging all the same. Heavyweight fights are often determined by the amount of blood drawn from an opponent. The fate of this bout wasn’t measured in blood, but in the the depth of the lines drawn as a consequence of their commanding commentary.
For more information about this film and its production, read my Interview with Robert Gordon.