These are the debates we're having today.
The Americans that live in this country today would not have survived 1968. We have lost our collective shit about the color of a dress and the NSA having data on phone calls. That's to say nothing of what's passing for the presidential primary contest right now. In 1968, Robert Kennedy was murdered after the California primary, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, and there were riots throughout the country in April and well-televised police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago. That's to say nothing of the Vietnam war. Watching Best of Enemies (2015), about the "debates" between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic conventions, it's hard to wrap your head around what would have seemed like a cultural tsunami to most people. As with the political trends of the time, these debates bestowed upon posterity a storm of political bullshit that has allowed the citizenry to be snowed into momentary ignorant rage and then complacency. Because, after all, there's someone up there being angry for me.
Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies spends about an hour building up these debates--through the voices of Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, and others--as a clash of the titans. Vidal and Buckley have their public personas exhibited to greatest effect, showing off their acerbic wits and contorted syntax. One thinks, "Ah, when the people on TV were actually smart!" All of that showmanship hides the little cynical clues the filmmakers leave along the way about ABC using these debates as a cost-saving measure, truncating their convention coverage to only a few hours instead of the typical gavel-to-gavel. The biting repartee also hides the fact that the pair rarely get into anything of substance but when they do, it's brief and startling. The real climax, however, is when Buckley calls Vidal a queer and threatens to hit him--violence being a very common tactic for the so-called intellectual Buckley.
The film's final bombshell is that we're fucked and these two are the one's that did it. This is debut of the sound bite on political television, the shouting heads, the point/counter-point that we recognize all so well today. The executives find a cheaper way to find an audience and the talent narcissistic enough to engage us by the power of their own self-attraction. The debate we have today has not moved significantly from the battle lines drawn in 1968 and the rhetoric is equally unchanged. It's as though no one is at the tiller, producers deciding what the set looks like, executives counting the eyeballs, and pundits giving the viewers their old, familiar tirades about things being better in the past, law and order, freedom, and tyranny.
Implicitly, we all see the problem here and the "moderator" said it right after Buckley's famous breakdown: "There was a bit more heat than light." And yet the heat warms us and the light hurts our eyes. Nobody wants to look. We complain when nobody told us there was a terrorist attack in Beirut because we don't read the news that tells us there was a terrorist attack in Beirut. We vote for candidates that service whatever selective news sources we entertain and so never get the unentertaining candidates we need. It is assumed that we will never and perhaps cannot ever educate ourselves sufficiently to vote wisely, so we have to rely upon our natural distrust of extremism to save us. Sadly, it is Buckley and Vidal who made extremism so attractive.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Additional interview footage, interview with the directors, and a trailer.
"Best of Enemies" is on sale November 3, 2015 and is rated R. Documentary. Directed by Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon. Written by Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville.