Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gordon & Neville's BEST OF ENEMIES tracks Buckley & Vidal and those infamous debates

Ah, the 1960s! What fun they were -- till they got kinda nasty. You know: Vietnam and all. The hippies and the Yippies. And the Chicago Democratic Convention riots. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's new documentary, BEST OF ENEMIES, takes us into those bygone times with flair, panache and no lack of intelligence, as the filmmakers concentrate on a series of televised debates between two very well-known intellectuals of their day -- right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr., and left-winger Gore Vidal.

Gordon and Neville (the filmmakers are shown at right, with Gordon on the left) lay out the framework for their film very well, carefully setting the time and place and taking us back into this era with an excellent eye for politics, culture, and especiallly television. ABC, on which the debates were shown, was the third-rated (out of three) network at the time (Fox had yet to exist), and the debates went a long way toward goosing ABC's ratings to a new high in which it beat out both CBS and NBC. The history we get of all this is solid, smart and telling.

We also get a good look at the two men involved, and this is where the documentary particularly shines. Instead of giving us the expected leaning toward the ultra-liberal Vidal (below, right) at the expense of the ultra conservative Buckley (below, left), the filmmakers give both men a decent shake, exposing their strengths as well as their weaknesses. All this leads to what one might indeed see as the climax of the debates (and the film), at whick point Gore calls William a "crypto-Nazi," and Buckley bangs back by outting Vidal as a "queer."

A confrontation like this one was "hot shit" in its day, and in fact still has the power to shock us, due to the livid anger we see expressed via both men. By the time it arrives, however, we've gotten to know the guys a little too well. Both were entitled and rich, and while Buckley tried to hide this, Vidal was perfectly happy to admit it, even as he condemned wealth and class in our country. Yet if Buckley proved his ususal sneering and obnoxious self, Vidal, too, seems awfully self-satisfied. One of the points the film brings home is that these two pretty much deserved each other.

Along the way we get some smart commentary from the likes of Frank Rich ("ABC was the Budget Rent-a-Car of the news programs"), Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Ginia Bellafante and Christopher Hitchens (among many others), with all of this edited down into a fast-paced, sleek and entertaining 87 minutes. Old-timers will relish having a re-look at one of the major cultural events of its day, while youngsters may get a taste of what television's past had to offer before those dreary, dreaded reality shows took over.  

From Magnolia Pictures, Best of Enemies begins its theatrical run this Friday, July 31, in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver, with openings in dozens more cities across the country in the weeks and months to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates with cities and theaters listed.

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