This is an unashamedly opinionated film. In Gore Vidal's America, the political coup has already happened. The right have triumphed and the human values of the liberals have been consigned ... See full summary »
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'Best of Enemies' is a documentary about the legendary series of nationally televised debates in 1968 between two great public intellectuals, the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Intended as commentary on the issues of their day, these vitriolic and explosive encounters came to define the modern era of public discourse in the media, marking the big bang moment of our contemporary media landscape when spectacle trumped content and argument replaced substance. 'Best of Enemies' delves into the entangled biographies of these two great thinkers and luxuriates in the language and the theater of their debates, begging the question, 'What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?'
"Best of Enemies" is incredibly effective at achieving multiple thematic ends without coming off as dense. Here's a few of things it managed to touch on.
It's a sound, but passive, attack on the current state of our discourse, giving us a history lesson on the genesis moment of television punditry.
It's a fascinating look inside network news in the time of American political convention "gavel- to-gavel" coverage. The last time that ever happened.
It's an exploration of how TV changes us, or at the very least, reveals us to ourselves, both as people who long to sit in front of its cameras, and as a nation who watches its images.
It's about how the two sides of the late 60's culture war found their primetime voices.
It's about class, and how where we come, or how we where we wish we had come from, affects how and what we think.
It's about the personal journeys of the intellectuals at the center of it - gay-left leaning best selling counter-culture author Vidal and establishment defending policy-affecting conservative Buckley - and how their confrontation never really left the center stage of their own minds.
But most spectacularly, it's about how the issues of a turbulent period (our republic caught in an ongoing war of attrition, race riots in the streets, the all too familiar rhetoric of income and racial inequality at the center of the political debate) never really ended.
And it does all of those things with a sense of real legitimacy, never once feeling like it's assigning more importance to the story than it deserves. A perennial fault in the doc genre. But it's not just a good story. It's a good story told well.
The whole thing is brilliantly structured, wonderfully cut together, incredibly funny and tragic, and far-reaching in its ambition. It's political positioning is measured, either because of or in spite of it's co-director being affiliated with the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.
It features great talking heads, including political historian Sam Tanenhaus (who I sorely miss as the New York Times Book Review editor) and avowed socialist/Marxist/anti-leftist/cultural contrarian Christopher Hitchens, who manages to bloviate even from beyond the grave.
This is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. A perfect double feature with last year's excellent, "Last Days in Vietnam". Catch it if it interests you. It didn't do as well at the box office as it should've.
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