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'Best Of Enemies' Looks To 1968 Buckley-Vidal Debates

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In 1968, ABC News was trailing miserably in the ratings and to offset its inability to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions it came up with the idea of offering a series of debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. The new documentary, "Best of Enemies" focuses on these debates.

In 1968, ABC News was trailing miserably in the ratings and to offset its inability to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions it came up with the idea of offering a series of debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. Here is how ABC News’ Howard K. Smith opened the debate.

CLIP Howard K. Smith debate intro… Can a political party based on human greed…

Best of Enemies is a new documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville that looks to the ten debates between these two passionately articulate men who were political and ideological opposites. The film uses the debates as a jumping off point for not only examining the lives of these two men but also for looking at how this moment laid the groundwork for the divisive political debate now found on television. Wait, calling what you find on TV now as debate or even dialogue elevates it because it is often more a screaming match or name calling session. Ironically, some of the most intelligent discussion of ideas has not been found these days on TV news but rather on shows labeled as entertainment rather than news – shows such as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

But back in 1968, TV was a different beast and American audiences were willing to embrace a pair of white males who took delight in asserting their moral and academic superiority. These men sounded like the kind of intellectuals that mainstream America was supposed to hate. But the American public enjoyed watching these two men spar so much that it lifted ABC out of the ratings basement. Reid Buckley assessed his brother’s opponent like this:

REID BUCKLEY: Vidal is a whore of debate… the man is brilliant and fun to watch but there is always a residue of nausea. I didn’t say anything nasty about him.

And this goes to why the debates were so much fun to watch: These men despite their distaste for each other’s politics, were articulate, clever, and witty. Howard K Smith at one point introduces them as craftsmen of the English language who knew how it should be used. The film also suggests that these men understood the power of television and relished being on camera and often literally addressing the camera in order to connect with the audience. They also understood that the debate was less about specific topical events like VietNam and more about issues that still push people’s buttons like racism, classism, and sexual morality.

CLIP What he wanted to do was expose Bill Buckley… their real argument in front of the public is who is the better person.

At the time, both men felt a need to score a victory and feed their egos. Both had suffered defeats in their attempts to run for political office, but both had proven successful in other fields: Buckley as the host of the right-wing talk show Firing Line, and Vidal as the author of best-selling books like the Myra Breckenridge. So they were primed for battle.

CLIP Men and women who are sexually repressed… For Buckley Vidal was the devil… a cultural war has joined the race war… tree of liberty watered with blood…

The film builds to the infamous moment where the usually in control Buckley let Vidal unsettle him during the debate during the Chicago Democratic convention after police faced off against protesters.

CLIP Raising a VietCong flag… crypto nazi… queer…

Best Of Enemies presents this as a pivotal moment. The first time the clip is played, there is a moment of silence and then Dick Cavett – interviewed for the film – says, “The network nearly shat.” On air, Howard K. Smith closes the debate with the comment that the evening provides “a little more heat and a little less light” than usual.

The documentary shows the exchange multiple times, and seeks reactions from people who knew each man. And the point the filmmaker want to make is that this was not just a pivotal moment for the debates but also for the two men and for TV news. So much of what Buckley and Vidal did in their careers leading up to this and on the debates was about elevating the public discussion and educating people but its those ten seconds when Buckley lost his composure that television took away as what they wanted to emulate. Vidal saw it as a moment of victory, Buckley was embarrassing that he had been ruffled to the point of losing his temper and losing the moral high ground. And TV News caught a glimpse of its ratings future and started programming the kind of left-versus-right circus shows where the combatants spend more time insulting each other than discussing ideas or finding common ground for compromise.

Best of Enemies is fascinating in terms of the archival footage and the interviews with such people as Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Reid Buckley, and more. It’s not innovative filmmaking but the directing duo know how to spin an entertaining, enlightening, and sometimes unsettling narrative. What’s sad is that so much of the debates between these two men showed how good and riveting television could be, but the ten seconds where they lowered themselves to mere name calling seems to be the legacy that has been left behind. Best of enemies, at its best though, reminds us how thrilling and provocative an intelligent debate can be.

I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie and you’ve been listening to my review of the new documentary Best of Enemies. Please subscribe to my podcast on iTunes and make sure to give it a review. Tomorrow I will have an interview posted with Oscar Winner George Chakiris, who will be in San Diego on Monday for a Q&A before the screening of West Side Story at the Globe. He won a best supporting actor award for playing Bernardo in West Side story.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place