Listen children, to a story about those hallowed days before 24 hour cable news and opinion, before cable TV, even.
Americans watched political conventions, gavel to gavel, because the three broadcast networks insisted it was their civic duty.
And one year, third-place ABC brought in two smart, erudite patricians to bicker-ever-so-politely about the differences between the parties in the two-party state. They all-but-invented the “shouting heads” model of political argument that is the TV “news” rule almost 50 years later.
“Best of Enemies” is about that segment of 1968 convention coverage that ABC devoted to debates between conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr. and gay novelist, gadfly and sometime politician Gore Vidal.
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Or as Buckley called Vidal, “You queer,” to Vidal calling Buckley, “a crypto-Nazi.”
In plummy locutions that reeked of class, breeding and mutual contempt, they went at it over who was “always to the right, always in the wrong” and who got his jollies by “being naughty.”
This bitterly breezy 87 minute film, co-directed by Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) and Robert Gordon (“Johnny Cash’s America”), uses the grainy TV footage of those personal/political arguments, interviews with the two lions’ respective biographers, relatives and friends (Dick Cavett is here) and media watchers, such as the late Christopher Hitchens and NPR’s Brooke Gladstone, to paint a lively, laugh-out-loud documentary about two titanic egos politely shouting each other down about the direction of America at its most divided — the Civil Rights Era/Vietnam War/Women’s Liberation/Drugs and Riots in the Streets ’60s. It got personal, profane and seriously entertaining.
Neither man ever quite got over the experience. John Lithgow reads from Vidal’s acidic memories of the debates, Kelsey Grammer delivers Buckley’s first-person embarrassment over them.
“Two visions of America” clashed, shared by the scary, bug-eyed Buckley of “The National Review,” and the vulpine, self-satisfied “Myra Breckinridge” author Vidal. The debates ebbed and flowed, from political commentary to bitter broadsides that started the “Culture Wars.”
And the viewer is left with one inescapable conclusion. Conservatives further to the right than Buckley could ever have dreamed control Congress. And gays, like Vidal, can get married. They both won.
BEST OF ENEMIES
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr., Dick Cavett, Brooke Gladstone, and the voices of Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow.
Writers and directors: Robert Gordon, Melvin Neville.
Running time: 1:27.
Rated: R, for some sexual content, nudity and language.