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Best of Enemies: Buckley vs Vidal

Year: 2015
Production Co: Media Ranch
Director: Robert Gordon/Morgan Neville
Writer: Robert Gordon/Morgan Neville
Cast: Gore Vidal, William F Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller Paul Newman, Kelsey Grammer, John Lithgow, Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan

I'd never heard of conservative intellectual William F Buckley (although his voice was familiar), but knowing what a liberal Gore Vidal was made me interested to see what might arise out of this doco.

It tells the story of a series of televised debates between Buckley and Vidal against the backdrop of the 1968 Republican electoral conventions in Miami and Chicago, much like the kind of thing we saw dramatised in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon.

Using footage and analysis of the debates by other thinkers from the time as well as archive footage and readings of what both men subsequently thought, there are several deeper points the movie makes. First it's shining a light on a very visible flashpoint between the conflicting political ideologies that have always shaken American society.

But as several talking heads and facts point out, it was also a turning point in the news media because of the ratings, giving ABC News a different profile in the market and establishing a workable business model that endures to this day – two people from polar opposite belief systems face off for the cameras with increasing emotional ferocity and the drama that ensues.

I always suspected I'd agree with a lot of Vidal's ideas, but I think in a lot of ways he was similar to Buckley in that he disliked people and believed himself intellectually superior to just about everyone, all while gleefully enjoying the spoils of the glittering facets of highly sexed and moneyed society you'd think he'd reject such as Hollywood.

And in another way it's about human fallibility. Even though the debates are lively and full of raised voices, both men are trying to make legitimate political points. Then, the proceedings reach a momment of (the cinematic equivalent of) a stunned silence when Buckley gets so exasperated at Vidal he calls him a queer and threatens to 'sock him in the goddamn face'.

It seems to suck the oxygen out of the rest of the debates, was endlessly turned over in 'Shock! Horror!' fashion in the press, and by the account of the film Buckley never got over the fact that he'd lost his cool and behaved with so little decorum. In fact after Vidal did a comment piece about it for Esquire. Buckley did a rebuttal, Vidal sued, and the litigation went on for years and took its toll on both men.

It's fairly interesting history you probably don't know (particularly if you're not American), but like most films that are ultimately about political views it's not going to change your politics.

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