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Film review: Best of Enemies

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William F. Buckley & Gore Vidal, 1968

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1968 is considered the most chaotic and turbulent year of the chaotic and turbulent '60s. Major protests took place across the globe, including in Mexico City, Prague, Paris and many American cities. Protests in two American cities, Miami and Chicago, provide the backdrop for the political documentary film Best of Enemies.

ABC wanted to increase its ratings to better compete with the much bigger broadcasters NBC and CBS. To do so, it organized a series of 10 debates with two extremely articulate ideologues, the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal. Each man was to defend his preferred party's platform, first in Miami at the Republican Party Convention, and then in Chicago at the now infamous Democratic Party Convention.

The debates made for fascinating television -- media critics like Christopher Hitchens and Todd Gitlin appear throughout the 90-minute film to explain the importance of these debates in the relatively new medium. To a large extent, however, the film focuses on the unique and eccentric personalities of these two men rather than what one might expect, namely, the ideologically based tensions tearing at the seams of 1960s America.

It's clear that Buckley and Vidal despised each other intensely, yet both seemed to have an acute fascination with the other. Each man saw in the other a "mirror image of an anxious version of himself." The viewer learns why this was the case. Both men were extremely erudite and articulate. Both were born into prestigious and political families. Indeed, both Buckley and Vidal were intellectuals who belonged to America's elites. Interestingly, they had both dabbled and failed at political office -- in 1960 Vidal ran for Congress in upstate New York but lost, while Buckley's 1965 attempt to become mayor of New York City was also in vain.

Where both men excelled, however, was with their extreme talents with the written word. In 1955 Buckley founded the influential conservative journal called The National Review, which he edited for almost 40 years. Vidal became a popular and respected playwright, novelist, and essayist over roughly the same period. According to Hitchens, "each man considered the other to be dangerous" for American society. In other words, both men were prescient in that they recognized America was becoming engulfed in what came to be known as the "culture wars."

One of the film's commentators claimed these heated debates were about lifestyle and were underpinned by the question, "What type of people should we be?" Buckley considered Vidal's position to be "spiritually stagnant," while Vidal saw in his adversary a strong "anti-democratic" tendency that would inevitably lead to a suppression of freedom for the many.

Contemporary political watchers and concerned citizens will find familiar themes with today's political rhetoric. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon emphasized the conservative mantra of law and order. Nixon was also a major supporter of the Vietnam War.

The Democrats, by comparison, were in disarray because their presidential candidate Robert Kennedy had been assassinated only a few months earlier. Their electoral platform was rooted in civil rights. Moreover, the eventual Democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, opposed the war in Southeast Asia.

Much of the 1968 election was fought over concerns over civil rights, law-and-order, and the Vietnam War. But the Buckley-versus-Vidal debates went at other issues, as well. 

During one particularly heated exchange, Vidal accuses the Republican Party of being obsessed with a lust for greed. Buckley reframes this point as a desire for freedom. Interestingly, he furthers this point by saying that this desire for freedom necessarily results in inequality. Does this explain why wealth distribution in the United States today is grotesquely concentrated at the top? The viewer is left to decide.

The film also highlights the importance of these two political and cultural thinkers outside of the debates. Buckley's articulations of American conservatism were influential in the subsequent 1980 election victory of Republican Ronald Reagan. Vidal's steadfast support for gay rights, through his novels, plays and essays, was undoubtedly a catalyst for contemporary widespread support for equal rights for LGBTQ people.

Best of Enemies is a fascinating psychological exploration of two gifted thinkers of 1960s America. Buckley was a formidable debater. He would be disgusted with the antics of conservative pundits at Fox News and elsewhere. He saw his intellectual equal in Gore Vidal. The film points out that both men thought intensely about these debates right up until their respective deaths 40 years later.

One weakness is that political ideological critique is for the most part only superficially alluded to. That said, this documentary is valuable for a host of important reasons.

Indeed, in 1968 we see the beginnings of divisive strategies used by contemporary conservatives that divide a nation along axes of race, class and culture. Pertinent to Canadians today, some of this is evident in the Harper Conservatives' controversial surveillance bill, C-51. It fits with their law-and-order ethos, while the NDP sees it as an infringement of our civil rights. Further, the Harper Conservatives are supportive of Canada's military fighting in Middle East conflicts, while the NDP is opposed. These binaries map onto Republican-Democrat positions in the 1968 election. 

The 10 Buckley-versus-Vidal debates are the precursor for the culture wars that exploded onto America's collective consciousness in the 1980s. They are also likely some of the earliest public expressions of a discontent that has manifested in 21st-century America with the appearance of the conservative Tea Party as well as numerous social movements for civil and human rights. Of course, similar tensions exist in Canada today. I highly recommend Best of Enemies.

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