Wednesday, September 9, 2015

'Best Of Enemies' Gets Two Thumbs Up From Me

Scene from 'Best of Enemies' with William F. Buckley (left) squaring off against Gore Vidal.

Hard core, political movies are rare in the American cinema scene. I really can't recall the last one I've seen, apart from 'Malcolm X', but that was more a docudrama and not a film based on a real life, real time clash of political opposites (though yes, some archival footage was clipped into it).  So it is with lots of fanfare that a new film has gained attention, 'The Best of Enemies' based on a series of 1968 televised face-offs between William F. Buckley - gadfly of all things liberal - and Gore Vidal, crusader against knuckle-dragging conservatives in all their various forms.

If ever there were two arch-ideological enemies they were William F. Buckley - perhaps the conservative movement's most influential voice, and Gore Vidal, brash and unapologetic voice for real liberals. In 1968, the ABC network, dead last behind CBS and NBC, didn’t have the resources for the kind of  Chicago Democratic convention coverage that their competitors did. So, ABC decided to let the flamboyant, unapologetic Vidal and Buckley – debate the issues of the day. Point-counterpoint. It was a novel idea at the time for television news.

It was also brilliant, and conniving: Once asked if there was anybody he would never take a stage with, Buckley had said he’d refuse to go up with a Communist, or Gore Vidal.  In the words of Christopher Hitchens:“There was nothing feigned about the mutual antipathy. They really did despise each other.

Vidal prepared for the debates by actually hiring researchers to go over Buckley’s record and his writings; he wanted to destroy the man, in part because he knew that Buckley, possibly the greatest debater of his time, wanted to destroy him.  This was obvious to any political junkie who watched their altercations on the small screen (at the time on ABC) or who has the chance to watch them now, in this new movie.

Long before the movie, 'Best of Enemies',  The Buckley-Vidal debates made for great television, as the two started spitting barely veiled invective at one another, like two King Cobras locked in a mortal battle for supremacy.  "El Libtard" vs. Reptile Reeptard, what more could you want? The debates took on the tenor of a 10 -round prize fight.  But would there be blows below the belt? As it happened, yeah!

Chris Hitchens first called attention to  “the cherry bomb that’s waiting to go off – and finally does”: On the night of the penultimate debate, Vidal, who’d been trying to get under Buckley’s skin the whole time, finally called his opponent a “crypto-Nazi.” Upon which Buckley called him a “queer” and threatened to “sock” him “in the goddamned mouth.” (For more background check out Jim Holt’s excellent article about the debates, published in New York Magazine.)

At that point, the battle of ideologies mutated into bitter, vitriolic personal confrontation - and Buckley started it by attacking Vidal's sexual orientation when the appropriate and proportional response was to refer to Vidal as a" crypto-Communist".  But Buckley lacked the degree of noblesse oblige necessary to carry this out, revealing that beneath the patrician exterior he was an Irish street brawler at heart.

It quickly became clear that Vidal and Buckley weren’t really locking horns over individual issues, nor were they arguing two different political philosophies, as Liberal facing off vs. generic Reeptardo might today.  No, they were clashing over something much more existential. Both men were despondent about the state of the country, but in opposite ways. Vidal saw in the degradation and chaos around him the signs of  metastasizing national security state power in tandem with corporate ascendance.  Not surprising given that JFK's assassination five years earlier, as well as Bobby's in June of '68, were likely orchestrated by elements of the national security state.

So Vidal welcomed an imminent revolution to return power to people; meanwhile, Buckley saw a rapidly decaying social order that threatened to ruin everything he held dear. Each man’s very being outraged the other. “Their confrontation is about lifestyle,” we’re told. “What kind of people should we be? Their real argument, in front of the public, is who is the better person?”

Let's concede here that Gordon and Neville’s film is slick, but not in a shallow way. Not at all. The key is that they’re generous with their archival footage, as well as underlining and undercutting with wit and verve. At one point, a discussion of Buckley’s morality cuts to footage of him caddishly answering a young female questioner about mini-skirts, then cuts to reveal what he’s up to on a stage with Woody Allen.

For anyone like me who actually lived during the 60s, and knew about these two guys, the best footage was of the actual telecasts themselves. One only had to hear Vidal say the words, “William Buckley, the distinguished thinker” with all the lilting, sing-song contempt of a playground taunt, to know it was  'Game on' and it was gonna be ugly.

 Then to hear Buckley talk about Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge with snide dismissal, including his rolling eyes. The drama is all there, and it’s riveting, just as much now as it was when seen for the first time during the Chicago convention in August, 1968.(I had just moved into a much more spacious apt. In New Orleans' Garden District, and could now afford a new TV as well as stereo record player - which ok, featured mostly 60s anti-war classics from Dylan, Joan Baez and others)

The best part of the film without a doubt is all that archival footage traversing decades, the talking heads, the voiceovers, the debates themselves – it could have easily become an incoherent mishmash of editing.  But the idea of building the film around the telecasts, then using that structure to hop around in Buckley and Vidal’s past and future, conferred both immediacy and resonance with the current political epoch. Everything else becomes a flashback or a flash-forward from the turbulent present tense of 1968, the country’s past and future all aswirl around these two men hammering away at the very idea of America.

Let's agree that 'Best of Enemies’ true aim is to lament a bygone era of no holds barred political discourse. Vidal and Buckley may have started off as representatives of an old-fashioned school of debate, learned and articulate and polite, but by the end of the conventions they wound up inventing a new media landscape of constant conflict, sustained anger, and barely contained violence. Gordon and Neville find in these two men’s infamous clash a turning point, the moment in time when the networks, the press, the pundits, and even average Americans got into political blood sports.

We're at it as viciously as ever today and the Left and Right would now likely make both these guys wince with their pugnacious discourse.

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