“Best of Enemies” Review (****½)

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William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal in “Best of Enemies.”

For our illumination, enlightenment, and consideration, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon give us “Best of Enemies;” a superb examination of William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, and how ABC pitted them against each other in order to save the network from impending doom. Through ten televised debates circling the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, Buckley and Vidal devolved from intellectuals into petty rivals, and a road to our current normalization of morally-void cutthroat political commentary was paved.

With this at its center, the film poses what I learned wasn’t an unintentional question through a Q&A with the filmmakers:

At what cost did ABC succeed? Was it worth it? 

In my mind, what was created then, and stands today, is a modern-day digital greek colosseum. It didn’t happen overnight, it’s been a slow-burn back-and-forth between the well-intentioned and the not-so-well-intentioned, but the capitalization of greed and our society’s fascination with blood-sport can really only breed one thing.

If you don’t agree, I think two words will about sum it up—Donald Trump.

While these musings may not seem relevant to the review at hand, it’s the film that has stirred their inception and that’s what a great film—especially a great documentary—will do. It will get you thinking, paralleling, intellectualizing; and even if Buckley and Vidal never agreed on anything, I think that the importance of stimulating an audience to that end would sit well with both.

“Best of Enemies” aims to invoke this in spades, and succeeds, as it harmonizes together archival footage, interviews with key individuals who worked intimately with Buckley and Vidal, hard-hitting modern day parallels, and the prolific societal prophecies of these men. With Aaron Wickenden’s purposeful editing and Al Nelson’s world-creating sound design, we’re immersed in the minds of these men while being irrevocably struck by just how little—or how slowly—our society learns from its own history.

Literally everything that Buckley and Vidal debate—when they were actually debating and not just going for the other’s gut—is a tragic foreshadow of the same debates that occur today. Yet, the filmmakers were smart and true to their subjects; the film speaks to the satirist that dwells in even the most idealistic of us, and couples together mad hysterical comedy and gorgeous tragedy in its delivery. Historically, human beings digest and retain information far more effectively when humor is invoked—any political satirist will tell you that. Of course, the manner in which that is wielded means everything, and puts a great deal of responsibility onto the commentators of our time.

Another question posed by “Best of Enemies”—Who is the better man?

Is it Buckley? With his god-awful, womanizing one-liners? Or is it Vidal, with his unyielding arrogance and unapologetically wicked appetite for the destruction of those who opposed him?

Both men were inherently flawed, yet undeniably intelligent—to determine who was right really means nothing, when the result is the same, and it’s been the same every decade since, no matter the players. Who these men were, however, off-camera and out of the arena, does give us some hope, and it does tell us something about what our intellectuals are capable of when their ego isn’t put on the public stage and told to destroy at all costs.

“Best of Enemies” creates a conversation that is so long overdue, it’s criminal; and it does so in such palpable and thought-provoking fashion, that it’s heightened from being a great documentary, to an important biography of America’s most recent and still evolving history.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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