This is how much the world has changed (or at least how much America has changed): In 1968, the lowest-rated TV network, ABC, decided to come up with a stunt that would boost ratings of their coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, in the run-up to that autumn’s Presidential election. And what they came up with was this: They gave two of the nation’s most prominent public intellectuals, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., ten nights of juicy evening airtime to debate the election and the state of the nation. And it worked: ABC’s ratings soared. People actually enjoyed watching two smarty-pantses arguing.
But maybe this only sounds like America was slightly more enlightened back then. The whole point of the brilliant, hilarious, exhilarating Best of Enemies — which explores the debates, how they came about, and their legacy — is that the success of ABC’s stunt changed what passes for journalism and news on American television for the worse. Much worse. Look at CNN or Fox or MSNBC today, and you’ll see that their airtime is filled with aggressive gasbags screaming at one another, and journalistic “balance” is now deemed to be allowing someone from each “side” to speak, even for “sides” that are utter nonsense. (If some corporation’s profit depended on a mass public delusion that our planet was flat, there would be a think tank dedicated to propagating that fantasy, and well-paid “experts” who got trotted out on the networks, with their full complicity, to endorse it.)
At the very least, though, in 1968, Vidal and Buckley were actual intellectuals, not PR flacks spouting corporate-approved talking points often completely divorced from facts. Even if you despise either or both of these men — and I certainly cannot abide Buckley, who was a nasty piece of work, as the evidence here shows — there’s no denying that they were smart people who actually believed and lived the opinions they defended, and weren’t just collecting a paycheck.
Though they did mostly just shout insults at each other in those debates, as Best of Enemies reminds us… or reveals, to those of us too young to have any memory of this television milestone. There’s so much fascinating stuff going on in this film, from award-winning documentarians Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon, not least of which is the contrast between Vidal’s cheerful snark and dripping sarcasm and Buckley’s snarling rage, sometimes so barely contained that he threatens actual physical violence to his opponent. Neville and Gordon build a depressing portrait of Buckley as the founder of the conservative movement that has been thwarting progress in America for decades now, built on the reactionary fear of angry white people (mostly men) over the prospect of women, gays, and nonwhites getting seats at the tables of power and privilege. And Vidal’s prescience about the collapse of the American empire and the inevitability of a culture more open and accepting of anyone who deviates from the straight-white-male “norm” gets play, too. (This is a wonderful companion piece to last year’s bio-doc Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.)
We get some insight from Vidal and Buckley themselves, as well, about how they later felt about the debates, via readings of their own writings read in voiceover by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal (both Vidal and Buckley are now dead, of course). And modern media observers give us more context. But we don’t need anyone to tell us that what we see here about the state of the U.S. in 1968 — controversial wars, riots over racial issues, an encroaching police state, debates over sexism and homophobia — looks very much like the state of the U.S. today. “The country was being split at the seams,” one 21st-century critic notes… and that feels true now, too. It’s slightly heartening to know that things are better now — Vidal would be delighted, and Buckley appalled, that gays now have the right to marry — but disheartening to see that the “identity politics” that Buckley helped create is thriving like never before.