Sundance Review: BEST OF ENEMIES Gets To The Heart Of Political Enmity

A documentary about the infamous Gore Vidal/William F. Buckley debates reveals the birth of modern punditry. 

In 1968 ABC, deep in third place back when there were just three networks, hired public intellectuals William F Buckley (a right winger) and Gore Vidal (a left winger) to debate during the Republican and Democratic conventions. The resulting live TV was angry, witty, eventually profane and set the stage for the next forty years of TV punditry and the decline of political commentary in the United States.

Buckley and Vidal’s showdowns are the stuff of legend at this point - Vidal pushed Buckley so far over the edge that the editor of the National Review called the novelist a queer and threatened to punch him in the face - but Best of Enemies goes far beyond the famous sound bites of the debates. It builds an entire structure of context that lets you understand not just the politics of the moment but also the backgrounds of the men, and why they ended up sitting in those chairs, fighting in front of ten million viewers.

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville have masterfully assembled their film, using minimal talking heads and maximum archival footage - everything from Vidal taking potshots at Buckley while appearing on Playboy After Dark to Buckley being rendered silent by video of the debate during the final episode of his long-running PBS show Firing Line. The film has a quippy pace that both debaters would appreciate, but it also takes time to give a nuanced view of the men and the time.

I know that this movie’s thesis - baldly stated as such - is that the Buckley/Vidal debates kickstarted the era that has led us to Hannity & Colmes, but I can’t help but watch this footage with fondness. These guys - whether you think they’re right or wrong, or whether you think they’re assholes or not - were titans and could throw words like Bruce Lee threw fists. It’s thrilling to watch two guys who are smart and eloquent truly tear into each other, giving their absolute best. Sure, they’re not quite debating the issues - and Vidal basically wins by trolling Buckley into freaking out - but it seems so high class compared to the screeching idiots we have today.

Some docs you see at festivals are well-made, some docs tell gripping stories. Best of Enemies is the rare breed that nails it all around - telling a great story in an enjoyable, smart way. By drilling down into these two men and their conflict, Best of Enemies ends up having a lot to say about how we talk about politics and how we relate to - and hate - each other.