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Michael Ferguson

Best of Enemies — Film Review

By Michael Ferguson

Best of Enemies

Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville



This is a rehash of the 1968 political conventions and the debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that were aired as part of ABC’s alleged news coverage.  I vaguely remember watching some of these when I was about fourteen years old.  These debates varied in length between about 8 and 22 minutes.  They were not very long.  I am quite sure I did not watch all of them, but I did watch the famous ninth debate when Buckley lost his temper and threatened to sock Gore Vidal in the face.  I don’t remember too much else about this and at the time I was ignorant and had a very limited perspective on the country and what was happening to us as a nation.  I remember checking Buckley’s book, Up From Liberalism, out of the library and carrying it around for some time.  I didn’t read the whole thing.  I started it, but Buckley is pompous and rather boring.  I didn’t warm to Gore Vidal either.  Vidal represented an iconoclasm and counterculture to which I had no exposure growing up in a small, backward, conservative town in Ohio.  I like him much better now that I have become an iconoclast and counterculture figure myself.  What I say here is not what I recall or influenced in any way by my own very vague memories of these events.  It is based strictly on what was presented in the film.

This film is interesting and presents a clash of two strong intellectual personalities.  They were both members of the east coast elite.  Buckley was well-to-do and educated in his early years in England.  Vidal’s family was military and political.  I wish the film was a little better than it was.  These two men had a deep visceral hatred for one another that lasted their entire lives.  They represented polar opposites in values, lifestyle, and vision for the country.  I didn’t really grasp the source of this rancorous hatred.  I understand they are different, they have different points of view, etc.  But difference does not entail that they must hate each other with such implacable animosity.  They seemed to need each other as enemies.  There was a peculiar bond of rivalry that they seemed to revel in.  I think there was some mutual jealousy as well as morbid fascination.  There was no foundation of good will or mutual respect.

Buckley was a grandiose, well defended person who hid behind this pose of intellectual superiority.  Vidal detested this.  He could see Buckley for what he was, namely, an authoritarian, narcissistic bigot, and he knew how to needle him.  He knew how to get under his skin and expose that ugly, violent, spite and disdain for those he considered beneath himself, which was almost everybody.  Vidal was not intimidated by Buckley’s intellect.  In fact, he mocked it.  Buckley wasn’t used to being challenged on his own turf, especially by someone for whom he had little more than contempt.  The fact that Vidal was able to bring Buckley to the point where he completely lost it in a public forum was deeply wounding to him and he never recovered from it.  But Vidal had been wounded long before, and throughout his life, by the narrow minded prejudices and righteous exclusion that Buckley embodied.  However, Vidal was accustomed to being insulted and disdained for what he was and was much better prepared for the attacks from Buckley.

These so-called debates reflected a cultural and political divide in the United States that existed at the time, but which has deepened and intensified ever since.  The election of 1968, and particularly the Democratic Convention in Chicago of that year, can be seen as the beginning of a long downward spiral in the United States, politically, culturally, economically, philosophically, and in terms of the media’s role in informing and educating the public.  We are now living in the shadow of that long process of cultural and political degeneration.  We have gone from William F. Buckley to Donald Trump.  Gore Vidal is all but forgotten.

The subject of this film, I think, is rather difficult, because these two men were primarily writers, who expressed their ideas in books and long essays and arguments.   A film does not and cannot capture all that has been laid down in pages and pages of print.  So the portrait of these two men and their rivalry is somewhat truncated.  Buckley, however, also had a presence in television and for that reason is probably better known.  It takes a lot more effort to read a book, and I think Vidal’s reputation and legacy has been hampered by that, in contrast to Buckley.

The film is a good, intriguing introduction.  I come away from it feeling more curious than informed.  I think I might read Myra Breckenridge.  It might give me better insight into Gore Vidal, who for me is the more remote of these two characters.  Buckley is a much better known quantity, although the film gave me some curiosity about his later years, particularly the despair and depression he expressed in his late interview with Charlie Rose.

I wish the film had shown more of the debates themselves.  The early debates were shown and the ninth debate, where the uproar occurred.  But the tenth debate was skirted with only scant mention.  It would have been interesting to see how they rebounded after that inglorious spectacle.  I think this film will be of special interest to those who are preoccupied with politics or who are interested in journalism and the information media.  Personally, I never watch television, except when I visit my dad.  And I am always shocked at the degradation that has occurred both in news coverage and in the popular culture.  This film is a measuring stick of that process of decline, like returning to the wilderness and seeing how much the glaciers have melted after many years.  It does what it does about as well as it could, but I think it is necessary to read in order to understand who these two men were and what this confrontation of personalities was really all about.