'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?'
Interesting even if it doesn't really recreate a time/place, and fumbles the link to the modern age
This documentary put me in mind of Rumble in the Jungle, the documentary about the fight of the same name; like that one, Best of Enemies looks at a staged conflict which had an impact on popular culture. In this case it was a series of televised debates between Vidal and Buckley – two men on polar political extremes. It was interesting to watch this in the run up to the 2016 Presidential Debate between Trump and Clinton (at the time of writing this, the first one will be in 2 days' time) because it hearkens back to a time where the discourse was a little more civil. It is also interesting to note that there is still an edge to their communication, with Vidal using snide insults (as is the liberal way), and Buckley using more direct language in a jokey way (as is the conservative way).
Not knowing anything about these debates, the film does a pretty good job of introducing the characters and their tensions, however it doesn't totally deliver in some key ways. Specifically it didn't bring out the period and the event as well as I would have liked; with Rumble in the Jungle you had a real sense of time/place, as well as the cultural importance of the event. With these debates that was not quite there; it didn't show enough of the debates to really explain why they were such an audience grabber. Likewise the film did not really link to its wider impact particularly well – a lot of this plays out under the credits, which felt weird considering that this was the moment of that shift.
As an event, and with its large characters, it still is an interesting and engaging film, but it doesn't feel like it captures the event or its cultural impact in as compelling a way as it could have done.
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