While Best of Enemies is a documentary it could have easily been turned into a movie as it views like a dramatic story that works towards a climax at the end of the ten head on collisions between the progressive liberal Gore Vidal and the (neo) conservative William F. Buckley. The exchanges are cloaked as debates with the intent to comment on the national conventions of both parties in 1968 prior to the elections, but are more like verbal brawls. They remind me of the Nixon vs Frost interview in the way it exposes the participants in full view of the television audience. But these are not interviews, commentaries , debates or exchange of ideas. These are dirty below the belt catfights of the most shameful kind.
The summit is reached when Vidal entices Buckley to fall into a trap and has him commit the worst of acts that ends all debates: to turn to threats of physical violence. It is the word cryptonazi that does the trick, foreshadowing the famous Reduction ad Hitlerum fallacy in a way: any debate ends when Hitler or Nazis become an argument in the discussion. When Buckley recoils from his own rage Gore gives him a supreme smile so thick with glee that it even shames his supporters: he has gotten what he wanted, that is: to expose the ‘real’ Buckley that lurks under the charming veneer: a lout, a ruffian and a brute.
But at what price?
After Gore carried away the flag in triumph, his initial victory turns into Pyrrhic one and overtime becomes a sound defeat for the nation, so the documentary has it. For these representatives of two opposing political worlds are not without influence, Vidal being a famed writer, essayist and commentator and Buckley an important publicist and more or less one of the founders of the neo-conservative movement.
And their fight does not end with the last of the debates. Instead in extends up to the death of the two well into the 21st century. The distaste and hatred between the two men, is mirrored in the isolation of influential groups and do nothing to make that country more stable. It would go a bit too far to state that this debate is the root of all evil , but it shows for the public eye something that was already in the make: the rising antagonism between (neo)conservatives and progressives that hijacks a nation. As the documentary has it: coming into being are two worlds that hardly communicate(and hate each other).
It is hard to judge if the documentary is biased, but it states, and this is impression I got, that Vidal went into the debates with the sole intent to tear down Buckley and what he stands for. Buckley seems to have had less of a purpose, but he quickly geared up. Yet I got the impression that Buckley was the more honest person and more personally affected by the personal attack, than Vidal was. The latter struck me as a cold calculating bastard to be honest. But maybe this is because Buckley felt far more charming than Vidal was.
It is sad to know that one man can hate another so much, or hate what the other stands for so much, as to show that in the public eye.
And it is sad that to see how people lap this up.
And this is probably the weakest part of the documentary. It doesn’t tell us much about the fanning of the hatreds. It never tells us that nobody had the decency to tell them to stop or that ABC gloated of this abject drama because of the soaring numbers of viewers. The documentary basically forgets about those large masses who were drooling over this live soap, showing the downfall of television as a serious means to inform and educate a nation. For when ABC got the most viewers with their entertainment, the other networks, with their boring serious distant coverage of the conventions lost theirs. And they saw what was happening and adapted: everything would become entertainment.
The documentary is one of the best I have seen and therefore quite unsettling. It not only concentrates on the debates themselves but glances at what happened before and how Vidal and Buckley fared after and gives us an impression of the participants. I would certainly recommend it, even if it is not a pretty sight.