Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Best of Enemies (2015)

Film: Best of Enemies (2015)
Director: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Oscar History: It was shortlisted for the Documentary Feature category, but couldn't quite make it.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I used to think of documentaries as the film style that needed to be seen in a theater the least.  After all, documentaries, barring they aren't nature films, don't generally feature specifically fine cinematography, and they almost never have any sort of visual effects, the two modern guideposts for seeing a film in theaters.  They aren't showing iconic movie stars on a gigantic canvas, guiding us through a world of make believe and adventure.  Or at least that's what I was thinking heading into Best of Enemies, the latest film from Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville.  As I left, though, I came to realize that documentaries actually, like all other films, make the most sense on the big screen.  In a world where your news is told in fragments with quick reads on your cell phone or ten minute looks at CNN at the gym or that rare USA Today during a hotel breakfast, it's actually nice to see a strong dissertation in front of you in a theater, no interruptions from looking up a point quickly on Wikipedia or wondering about bias, but instead trying to decipher your own point of view in a darkened audience.  It works particularly well when the argument is as thoroughly discussed as Best of Enemies, a film that goes in with few opinions about two men who had nothing but opinions.

The film unfolds as if they are about to tell the tale of an epic boxing match, rather than a political debate.  The focus of the film as it moves is of course on the historic impact of the Buckley/Vidal debates of 1968.  For those who need background, at the time political conventions were covered wall-to-wall on TV, with all of the major networks inserting the same coverage rather than a highlighted sample like they do today (only CSPAN exists to cover the full debate in the modern era), and news commentators like Walter Cronkite were not interjecting their thoughts on the proceedings, but simply their unbiased news points of the day.  ABC at the time was languishing in third place in the ratings, and needed something to spice up their coverage so they sought out two of the most noted partisan intellectuals in the country, conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal, to debate briefly after each convention day some of the thoughts of the day.

The film is great in the way that it doesn't just point-blank discuss some of the key realities of the men's discussions, instead letting you realize these ideas on their own.  When the film first premiered at Sundance, I remember a critic writing about how the film didn't focus on the conventions at all, with the exception of a focus on the police brutality of the one in Chicago.  However, if you listen to Buckley/Vidal, the likes of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were hardly the point.  The point here was the two men and their egos.  Yes, they occasionally brought it back to the party and to their points of view, but the purpose wasn't really about politics or party, but instead presentation and above all else winning.  Looking at the infamous penultimate debate, when Buckley called Vidal a "queer" and said he'd punch him in the "god-damned mouth," we see Vidal winning not on the issues themselves or even in a proper debate mode, but instead by making his colleague look like a fool.  This is a great precursor to the directors' larger argument, of what happened when shows like Crossfire and The O'Reilly Factor began to corrode the political landscape by turning it into all show, never devolving into substance.  The staggering thing about these debates, which many in the news media considered vulgar and undignified, was that they seem practically refined today-there's decorum and ten-dollar words, and unlike some of the minds that litter the pundit scene now (or happen to lead the Republican presidential polls) few could argue that Buckley and Vidal didn't have a firm grasp on the issues and weren't extremely intelligent men peacocking for their side.

One of the best moments of the film also happens toward the end of the movie, the way that they recount Buckley and Vidal's career trajectory after these debates.  The men continued to despise one-another, with Vidal relishing in his win years later, even as Buckley's side ultimately won the day in terms of both the 1968 election and the upcoming conservative revolution, as Buckley's ideals broke way for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the neoconservative movement.  It's fascinating also to watch these two men and their weird trajectory of fame.  Both arguably had their biggest moments later on, with Buckley gaining peak fame when Ronald Reagan credited him with shaping his world purview, while Vidal would become the great crafter of American historical fiction with his bestselling Narratives of Empire series in the 1970's/80's.  Years after that, it's also interesting to see how they dwelled on this past fight even as their peak fame started to evade them.  Buckley was replaced by a flashier punditry, the type that was less concerned about attending Truman Capote's black-and-white ball and more concerned about pretending to be a "common man."  Vidal, also, didn't age in the same way that some of his literary contemporaries like Philip Roth and John Updike did, not gaining in stature as he aged but instead becoming more of a remembered figure of an era rather than one of the "all-time greats."  Watching this portion of the film is actually weirdly compelling to see giants of their time fall to history's fickle and unforgiving memory, as most of even the most important men begin to lose their place in public consciousness.  It's compelling to watch this with Vidal and Buckley because they were so consumed by ego and by creating this irresistible persona.  Indeed, I found myself watching Buckley spout views that I couldn't stand with such charm and charisma I now kind of get when people say "he just seems like a good guy" for the first time in my life.  These two men were competing for their spot in the annals of history, and the world didn't even let them wait until they were dead before they already said there wasn't enough room for either.

Which makes the film itself a great testament to both men, and one definitely worth seeing.  The movie may seem slight in the sense that it focuses on a now-forgotten moment in history, but it was one that shaped the modern news-media landscape for the worst, and it features two dismissed titans of their day, which makes the film seem all the fresher.  If Best of Enemies is playing near you, I suggest you see it (in a theater, if possible), and enjoy the bluster.

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