20 May 2016 | bkrauser-81-311064
Commentary on Commentary by Commentators
If one were to look for a patient zero when it comes to the dawn of modern political punditry, it would likely be the 1968 Vidal vs. Buckley debate. Amid mounting Vietnam war protests, conflict within the civil rights movement, fractious inner-city turmoil and the shocking assassination of Robert Kennedy, the summer of 1968 was turning into what professionals would call "a real clusterf***k". Meanwhile the now institutional stalwart ABC News was trailing the other large networks in a quest for ratings. Due to budget restrictions, their network only had cursory coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions taking place in Chicago and Miami respectively. So to fill time, the network hired conservative author and commentator William Buckley Jr. to give analysis and perspective to the political uncertainty of the time. When asked for suggestions on who would be his liberal counterpart he asked not to be sitting across a Communist or Gore Vidal; I suppose no Communist was available because guess who they hired?
Best of Enemies analyzes the antagonistic relationship between Buckley and Vidal as they debate the issues of the day. The two trade barbs and vitriol each pretty much seeing everything wrong with society in the other. While Vidal caustically jabs Buckley's National Review magazine, Buckley continually refers to Vidal as "the author of Myra Breckinridge," Vidal's most controversial work. Despite making careers being on the opposite side of the political spectrum, both were at their heart, prep school dandies who spoke in paragraphs. Vigorous debaters till the bitter end of their confrontation, the event left indelible mark on the both of them and in the process left a mark on the country as a whole.
There were ten debates in all, thus I'm sure the issues of the day were given their due in 1968 but the film all but ignores any semblance of context. There's no deeper gleaming of the existential milieu of the time. There's little reference to the major events that surrounded the conventions nor is there any real explanation about the mechanics behind the conventions themselves and why they're so interesting by today's standards. On there rare occasion we do get nuggets of information, they're told second hand by our two subjects who flippantly add their own two cents.
Best of Enemies could have been a movie about how we view 20th century history and more importantly, how contemporaries thought about history as it was unfolding. Instead the makers of the film decided it'd be better to pick apart the psychology of the pundits and the ways they approached each other. Yet by narrowing the film's focus, we also narrow the film's impact. Why should an audience care about two blowhards when they should be caring about the impact these two blowhards had on their world? It also narrows the film's marketability which as it stands only services fans of Gore Vidal. A little more context, a little more information heck a little more nostalgia could have made this documentary transcendent.
But fine, I suppose in good hands you could still flesh out a neat story from the film's odd couple. After all, co-director Morgan Neville did blow people away with 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), a documentary that similarly exposes the passions, frustrations and psychology behind backup singers. Unfortunately not even the voice-over work of John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammar could flesh out and humanize the pomposity in the room. By the time the film reaches it's "smoking gun" moment, all the venom, all the contempt and all the nastiness of the debates renders the film puckishly inconsequential. Despite most secondary interviewees concluding one side won over another; it's understood we've all lost in the end.
Perhaps in a roundabout way, that was the point of Best of Enemies; the idea that our civil discourse corrodes our society's mores and makes us more inclined to speak instead of listen. Yet let's keep this in mind, Best of Enemies is a commentary on commentary, expanding on the confrontation between two commentators and using commentators to do so. It's like a Russian nesting doll of proto-reality TV hyperbole. Only it fails to truly plug itself in a context and ultimately lionizes one talking head over another. Thus this muckraking political documentary is just as unsatisfying as most.