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Film Review: Best of Enemies

One of the directors of Best of Enemies, Morgan Neville, calls his film "both thrilling drama and absurdist comedy." And he’s right. This documentary is edge-of-your-seat thrilling and knee-slappingly funny. It is also informative, critical, biographical and inspirational. Best of Enemies balances the roles of documentary, namely to educate and entertain, in a masterful way that makes it a truly fantastic film.

Best of Enemies recounts the circumstances, events, and consequences of the eccentric ABC News coverage of the 1968 party conventions for the presidential nomination. The smallest of the networks at the time, ABC did not have the resources to compete with NBC and CBS with wall-to-wall coverage of the conventions. "It wasn't necessarily sensible," says one of the film's varying talking heads, "but it changed television forever."

ABC's answer was to bring in extremely popular, conservative figure William Buckley, Jr., editor of the National Review (in fact, if you click the "About" tab on the Review's website to this day, it takes you to Buckley's biography) and one-time candidate for New York City mayor. His own brother summarizes Buckley in the film: "A conservative, right-wing libertarian Christian. That's what he was, but he was also a revolutionary." The network planned to make the incredibly popular right-winger debate each day of the two conventions with a popular left-winger, for ten debates in all. When asked if there was anyone he would not like to oppose, Buckley said, "I wouldn't go on with a Communist, other than that, I guess just Gore Vidal."

Vidal was equally prominent. Another failed politician and extradited member of the Kennedy inner-circle, Vidal's essays and satirical fiction made him a hero to liberals and a monster to conservatives. He hated Buckley as much as Buckley hated him. Best of Enemies does an excellent job at establishing that their debates were not just about pushing competing agendas and boosting ratings. They were about something much more personal, rooted in something much deeper. Buckley is credited as the first conservative to understand that the conservative movement was less about politics than about lifestyle. Vidal's lifestyle as a cosmopolitan homosexual was the antithesis of Buckley's ideal. They were perfect for one another, a match made in Hell. They debated to prove that each was not only politically justified, but that each was actually a person with better morale. 

The Buckley-Vidal debates were the origin of what we call Pundit Television, where so-called experts fill air time bouncing beliefs off of one another in lieu of actual reporting. Best of Enemies does not restrain itself to only telling the story of the 1968 battles and their fighters, but also discusses what the debates led to. It does this with a critical tone, as if to say that the debates were a good thing that inspired consequence. 

This point might just be right. Buckley and Vidal, the film points out, were intellectuals of the highest order. They were an editor and a playwright, respectively, both narcissistically believing in their own infallibility. They dared to say things as fact simply on their own authority. Vidal said that neither Ronald Reagan nor Richard Nixon stood a chance in a general election. They won four between them. Buckley had no answer to a girl asking him his position on short-skirts but to compliment her nice legs (by which Woody Allen was impressed). They have both been haunted by the debates throughout life, and to them, they never really ended.

Best of Enemies captures the events of the ABC coverage as revolution, media event, war and sport. Each of the ten debates plays like a new round in a boxing match, complete with a signature 'ding' to get the competitors going. 

The film’s editing is exquisite with its use of exhaustively researched archive footage, but might be the most joyous to watch when it lets the boys play, running long stretches of uncut coverage of the two brawlers tossing verbiage back and forth. Their threats and elaborately high-minded insults flow as if scripted, proving the antithetical compatibility they shared. When the metaphorical pot of their mutual disdain finally boiled over, Vidal turned after the camera stopped rolling and said to his foe, "I guess we gave them their money's worth tonight."

Though not as adversarial, the two directors of Best of Enemies have a similar compatibility. In the post-screening forum, they literally finished one another sentences, and didn't mind at all that the audience was not in on their inside jokes. They told stories about the exciting process of making the documentary. They told of Vidal's satisfaction that he managed to get the last word in by living longer. They also shamelessly perpetuated a maybe-true rumor that Buckley tried to have an embarrassing clip from the debates deleted. The documentary features Buckley and his shock after his realization that the clip was archived, and it was one of the more exhilarating moments in the film. The myth goes that the ABC archive is missing just one of the ten debates, and that is the one that most harmed Buckley's legendary ego. The directors uncovered a copy from a third party archive during their research. 

The arrival of Best of Enemies could not come at a better time (or place, for that matter, opening in DC at the Newseum). This spring celebrated the tenth anniversary of Youtube's launch. How different the world is now. In 1968, it was radical to have two well-known thinkers share their opinions on television. In 2015, anyone with an internet connection can share or find any opinion they want. And forget about having a tape destroyed. Within minutes of Buckley's climactic gaffe, it will have gone viral, become a gif, a meme, even become remixed into a catchy novelty tune. But it was a different time then, and Best of Enemies makes a good case that things have changed not incidentally, but because of Buckley and Vidal.

Best of Enemies was featured as the opening night film of the AFI Silver Docs Film Festival. Its theatrical release is set for July 31st. The annual festival runs through Sunday in various locations throughout Washington and Silver Spring. Featured photos in this post are courtesy of the film trailer. 

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