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'Best of Enemies' is a terrific documentary about the Vidal-Buckley debates

The documentary looks at the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley and the acrimonious relationship between the two.

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'Best of Enemies' stars William F. Buckley (l.) and Gore Vidal (r.).

Magnolia Pictures

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As a teenager, I remember watching the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the two national political conventions and thinking that they were way more entertaining than any of the TV dramas that were popular at the time. Those debates, unaccountably unavailable for the most part since then, have been resurrected as the centerpiece of the terrific documentary “Best of Enemies,” directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. The film positions those debates as a harbinger of the ideological sword-crossing that has become a staple of TV news. Except what we have now, as opposed to the Vidal-Buckley confrontations, is a lot more yammery than eloquent.

Eloquence, however, doesn’t really describe the one outburst from the debates that made headlines. In the ninth of the 10 debates, this one during the unruly Chicago Democratic convention, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley shot back, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi...” and threatened to "sock" him.

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Although Buckley subsequently apologized for the “queer” remark, the two men engaged in protracted lawsuits for decades. Their acrimony was not a put-up job for TV ratings (although ABC, dead last at that time, did very well by these men). As Christopher Hitchens, one of many smart talking heads in the film, says, “They really did despise one another.”

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I wish “Best of Enemies” featured more footage of the various debates, which began during the Republican convention in Miami. I also wonder if the film’s central thesis – that the debates kicked off the subjective TV news slant we have today – is a bit oversold. If these debates had never happened, I think we would very likely still have exactly what we have today. Partisan hollering sells.

One wish: Although Vidal, who was predeceased by Buckley, was interviewed by the filmmakers not long before he died, the decision was made not to include this footage in the final film. I hope the eventual extended cut DVD includes it as an extra. Grade: A (Rated R for some sexual content/nudity and language.)


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