This year saw a documentary appear in cinemas that told the story of one of the greatest television events of the twentieth century, and the performers who made it such a historical television event. The documentary I am talking about is not Live from New York, the flawed documentary that tried to chronicle the history of Saturday Night Live, but rather Best of Enemies, a strangely hilarious and wonderfully captivating film about the birth of political punditry and in a sense, the role political debate plays in the modern world.
Let us be perfectly honest here – very few of us get our news and political opinions through reading the newspapers. A huge part of why modern politically-minded people are so informed is because political punditry has evolved to the point where it is frequently in our lives, in our leisure periods. One can try to avoid it, but through the two biggest mediums that everyone encounters everyday – television and the internet – politics is always omnipotent. We encounter it through clickbait articles and viral internet videos, and through news programmes and political satire shows. Politics has taken over our lives in a truly subtle but effective way – fifty years ago, it was an elite group of people who could call themselves “political” – those who had fancy degrees and were willing to spend hours going through long books and manifestos to form their opinion. In the modern world, where instant gratification isn’t a request, it is a demand, political thought is frequently in everything one does. I won’t go into a full diatribe about the way everything one says and does has some political underpinning (or rather, that’s what many people would like to think), but if there is a film that shows the rise of politics infiltrating the collective consciousness of the general public, it is Best of Enemies, a fantastic documentary.
The film does not inspire much confidence in those unfamiliar with the subject matter. It is about intellectual writers William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, the former a hard-hearted conservative, the latter a manipulative liberal, who found their brightest (and most controversial) moments in 1968, where they underwent a series of ten debates regarding the upcoming presidential elections. In the modern world, a political debate is often just seen as some tame sparring on people that share opposing views to yours – and any name-calling or off-hand remarks are seen as being in poor spirit. However, this was the exact essence of Vidal and Buckley – they weren’t only people with opposing views, that were capable of having a friendly debate – rather, they were bitter rivals that hated the other with all their being. Both had nothing but pure, unadulterated hatred for the man who sat across from him. This hatred is absolutely delightful – because while it is sometimes difficult to watch, these two men arguing is made all the more fascinating when you consider that there it was virtually impossible that they went for a drink together afterwards. They despised each other, which allows for an interesting portrayal of human nature and the relationship between opposing opinions – for the first time, there is proof that it is possible that you might just have a complete opposing point to another person, and in some cases, friendly debate just isn’t possible. It is a bleak outlook, but sometimes, being civil is not always the way to go down in history, as these historic debates between the two men prove.
Documentaries are brilliant pieces of cinema, but they can sometimes be terribly manipulative – emotional music, nostalgic narratives and interviews from specific people can try and change your perception of the subject at hand. Best of Enemies is unique in the way that it doesn’t make use of any manipulative documentary tricks – it allows the subjects to speak for themselves, and through interviews with some of their closest friends and co-workers, we are introduced to the ideologies of these two men. It is their words that shape the narrative, and tell the story. It is risky – because sometimes documentaries manipulate the emotions of people to allow us to be captivated and enthralled in the story – having this film be a constant back-and-forth between the two men can be quite…dull (in theory), but when you see the fiery and passionate anger between the two men, it proves to be more entertaining than any other film.
Best of Enemies is also constantly hilarious – which is strange, considering the topic is about politics at its purest form. I laughed in this film more than any comedy film this year, mostly because the comedy came at the expense of these two men, who were so desperate to one-up the other, they would constantly throw callous remarks at the other, and one needs to consider that these men aren’t the CNN/Fox News pundits that we are used to – dull, serious people with certifications that apparently give them licence to comment on the issues of today. William F. Buckley Jr. was a steadfast conservative with a proper education and a penchant for proving people wrong. Gore Vidal was a politically-minded man, but not a politician, and first and foremost can be considered more of a writer and intellectual rather than a politician. Through this, both men exhibit great wit and intelligence (something lacking in the pundits of today) and make for absolutely riveting television. Their statements to each other are frequently mean-spirited and very entertaining, and their statements to other people display their immature brilliance, their passion for deriding the other, even when they were not in direct contact. It is an absolutely revolutionary way of showing political debate, and something I have never seen before.
Many documentaries seem to paint the picture that the liberal agenda is the progressive, correct and most positive plan, while conservatives are brash, close-minded and intolerant people with archaic opinions. As someone who does not solidly align himself with either the left or the right, I was pleasantly delighted to see that this approach was not taken – neither liberals or conservatives are seen as being the positive political group. In fact, neither of them are seen as being positive in general. As much as I am fascinated by both of these men, and read their works and listen to their opinions with great interest, it was wonderful to see them portrayed as they really were – cry-babies in suits. Bitter, vicious and nasty are the best words to describe them. They throw insults at each other, demean the other man and will do anything to get their way, and if they don’t, they don’t simply accept defeat. In an age where there are clearly defined boundaries between liberal and conservative thinking, there has been a rise of different spaces where those who align themselves with either ideology can go and see people with similar beliefs speak their mind, and never encounter argument or heavy debate. There are very rarely times where a pundit can be proved wrong entirely in a debate setting, which makes the historical Vidal/Buckley debates even more exciting – it is unlike anything you will ever see in the modern age. Conservative pundits can be laughed at in online viral videos and in late night comedy shows, and liberals are reviled by conservatives on their early morning shows, there very rarely is a chance for them to interact directly, and to be perfectly honest, the rise in political sensitivity makes me worry that the debates between the two political ideologies will largely by conducted in a manner of proxy, without the ideologies directly going up against each other. As someone critical of both sides of the political spectrum, it was delightful to see them portrayed in the same light – both as flawed ideologies with both positive and negative aspects.
Best of Enemies tells a fascinating story. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. were a pair of very interest individuals. Their historic series of debates allowed for the rise of political commentary that had not yet been seen before. However, political commentary was never greater than it was here. Brutal, honest and constantly hilarious, it was never more exciting to be someone who followed politics. Unfortunately, punditry itself is starting to fade, and ironic, comedic punditry itself is growing (however, I disagree, because Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who were the arbiters of this great tradition, have vacated their posts as representatives of the liberal pundit community), and in the end, punditry is an interesting part of politics, and just as politics changes, so do the voices of those who fall on either side of the spectrum. Best of Enemies is a fantastic film, and an absolute must-see for anyone who loves politics, intelligent debate or seeing two grown men insult each other. A beautiful film.