Wednesday 2 September 2015

Film: 'Best of Enemies'

One has to be interested enough in the subject matter of this documentary to pay money to see it. I was, and have no regrets.

It's about the series of 10 TV debates between arch-conservative William F. Buckley and irrepressibly liberal Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic party conventions in 1968, in Miami and Chicago respectively.
I knew next to nothing about Buckley, nor about these debates, but anyone who was around at the time and politically aware will recall the news reports about the rioting in Chicago during that particular convention, incidentally coming, as it did, in the wake of the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Directors Robert Gordon and Gordon Neville have created quite a riveting film here, concentrating mainly on the verbal duelling of the two proponents and their barely concealed reciprocal loathing of each other. I have to confess I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more shown of the discussion on the political issues of the time. Essentially, it was the sparring of two personalities that was at the centre. To have gone into just modest depth on any of the myriad of political matters might have greatly extended this film's sensible 88 minutes.

We are told a bit about the background of each, together with extracts (quite brief) of their debates, interrupted by some 'talking heads' still alive when this film was made - among them Buckley's brother and his female personal assistant, and one of Vidal's closest friends, as well as Christopher Hitchens - and also various luminaries of broadcasting and publishing. There's also quite a bit of contemporary newsreel footage.

As to the extracts from the TV programmes, it's impossible for me to say whether or not what was chosen was representative. From what we see it's Vidal who is the smoother talker with superior command of language and who gives the impression of exercising self-control, whereas Buckley always seems to be on the edge of exploding - which he eventually does when Vidal refers to him as a "crypto-Nazi" and he responds with a threat to "smash (Vidal's) face in" calling him "You queer!" - a directly addressed epithet, until then never before heard on American TV (and this being broadcast live!)
It seems that Buckley regretted his intemperate outburst right until his death seven years ago. Vidal also never forgot it and, in fact, used the episode to wonder in a published essay if Buckley was a closeted gay - and even incorporated into one of his novels a rampantly homosexual character which is thought to be a tenuously veiled reference to Buckley. After Buckley's death, Vidal's valedictory R.I.P. message to him was "Burn in Hell!" (or was it "Rest in Hell"?)  - the incident clearly a festering sore within Vidal too.
Although Gore Vidal himself died in 2012 there's no reference to his departure in this film.

In the chosen TV extracts it was also noteworthy that whenever Buckley said something which Vidal took issue with, which was practically every sentence of Buckley's, Vidal would interrupt and talk over him. Rarely did Buckley do that with Vidal. When not interrupting, the young Vidal would just sit there with a winning, endearing smile. Buckley was much more starchy both in speech and demeanour.

If the film was more sympathetic to Vidal (some may argue that it wasn't), it wasn't by a huge margin. I think they did a good job of keeping fairly close to a non-partisan middle way.

I came out of the cinema well-satisfied with a film which felt like good brain fodder. If you're interested in the world of American politics (even though this is more interested in the two feuding individuals rather than their political stances) I'd strongly recommend it.............................7.


  1. Now this is a documentary that I'd really like to see. Two brilliant and opposing minds clashing. A battle of the Titans. I've never seen Buckley loose his cool - it would be amusing to see him lash out at Vidal.

    I remember the 1968 riots and elections very well. It was a turbulent time in American history (but, then, that's nothing unusual).

    1. I should have said "lose", not "loose". Sorry.

    2. You'll have the advantage of having known of Buckley, Jon, whereas for me he was just a vague name, so you ought to get something extra from the encounters.
      The Chicago riots was headline news here at the time, and it's been seared into our memories who were around then.

      Btw: I would have guessed you intention on 'lose/loose'. We all make typos. Pity that we can't edit our comments.

  2. Mr. Vidal's writings are some of my favorites. Goodness knows what he would do with today's USA politics.
    He wrote my favorite book "Creation".

    1. I should think he'd have been as dismissive about it as he was of organised religion, Dr Spo. Still, it would have been good to have heard his own words on the subject.

      Because of what you said some while ago about 'Creation' being your favourite book I've had it in my re-read pile for some time now. You've given me an additional reason to promote it into the 'more urgent' section.
      When I first read it (about 20 years ago, I think) it struck me as being over-dense and not the easiest of books to grasp - a charge which would fit most of his works, I'd say. But in view of what you've reiterated I really must try again, and harder.