Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies ★★★★½

I'm pretty sure I have, sometime in the recent past, written about my fascination for societies in flux. I'm pretty sure when I said it I had my head stuck deep in Fassbinder's oeuvre. I'm sure I lamented the fact that Western society has now, predominantly, for better or worse, settled on a model that few bother to question. Capitalism, corporatisation and conservatism are now inextricably linked and, rather disturbingly, taken as a given.

This wasn't always the case. There was a time when conservatism went head to head with libertarianism; when capitalism was questioned and where the straight, white, phallic pillars of conservative Western society were energetically shouldered. And it could have gone either way.

The struggle was real. The fight was for the hearts and minds of the population of the country at the forefront of the (then) new world order and in 1968 on the unexpected battlefront of the ABC network's coverage of the Republican and Democrat conventions, the two armies found their unflappable, self-appointed generals. For the conservatives, smarmily-smiled William F. Buckley Jnr. For the liberals, smugly erudite aesthete Gore Vidal.

America didn't know what hit it.

The thrilling intellectual beauty of Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's punchy survey of the battlefield, apart from the two (well, one and a half) heavyweights it puts centrestage, is its generous attachment to context. The film makers pour over the state of the U.S. at the time, painting it as incendiary, and not without reason. The Vietnam War, civil rights demonstrations and the growing visibility of the young gay rights movement (spurred on in part by Vidal's "racy" literary output) meant the siege of traditionalism was coming to a much needed head.

Gordon and Neville aren't attached so much to the ideas that were being bashed around as they are to the tumultuous world they are being bashed around in. Likewise, they aren't overly concerned with the opinions as they are with how virulently they were being expressed.

The same can be said of debates themselves, which the film makers have carefully spaced to make the most of their gradual escalation; they barely touch the issues. They are delicious performances. They are broad brushed character assassinations that dig deep and with great relish into the ingrained ideological differences embodied within these two men, ideological differences which would come to define the United States in the decades to come.

It may be simplistic to paint the emerging situation the film throws into with a fascist/social justice dichotomy but I will say, with Gordon and Neville's crackling insertion of footage of the violent demonstrations that surrounded both conventions, Vidal's crypto-nazi cherry bomb (as onetime Vidal protege, Christopher Hitchens, labels it) certainly isn't that hard to swallow. Not that it doesn't get caught in Buckley's throat.

Ironically, the path that the rabble rousing success of the Buckley/Vidal spar set televised commentary on precludes labeling Best of Enemies "balanced" - though, from where I stand, the film is a reasonably faithful presentation of the situation. Gordon and Neville may not throw up quite as much rah-rah for Buckley as they do for Vidal but Buckley is not the kind of man that inspires a cheer squad (at least not the kind of cheer squad that I'd be happy to join). He did, mind you, as the film notes, congeal the conservative movement in America and watching him at work gives real insight into the right wing conservative mindset.

That is the other fascination of Gordon and Neville's film, and a testament to its subjects: how passionately they evoke their love for the United States and how, in doing so, they also eviscerate it. Patriotism in anyone's hand is a double edged sword. In the hands of Buckley and Vidal it is a scalpel and the ensuing dissection spills more than its fair share of entrails. Watching, even from this distance, is both upsetting and invigorating. There is real fire in the discussion. It fuels these to ideologues and, though the film probably makes more of it than was likely the case, it does in some way define them. The two men were most themselves when they were locking horns. Both knew it was a performance but both new it was an important, nation saving act.

So while Best of Enemies does milk Buckley-Vidal opposition for all its worth, it does so in ways that remain true to their carefully cultivated public personas and their political essence. I'm sure the two men weren't kept up at night tying themselves in knots over their intellectual feud but there can be no doubt that the conflict left its mark on both of them. The beautiful Sunset Boulevard anecdote, which sees Vidal locked away in his villa, Norma Desmond style, obsessing over his performance, is too perfect not to be true, and Buckley's violent reaction to any line of questioning that pressed on that moment of his past betrayed his personal millstone.

It is these acute character moments that connect Gordon and Neville's film so completely with its audience. It is an extraordinary encapsulation of those who feel deeply and live fully according to their political persuasion, and how those lives chart the lives of others around them. It tracks politics from its virile fervour to its final breaths, either hollowed out, as in Buckley's case (his response to whether he would go back to his youth is one of the saddest moments I've witnessed on film this year) or disillusioned (and living self-satisfied on the Amalfi Coast) as it went with Vidal.

Best of Enemies is an absorbing portrait of the birth of modern American media discourse that circumscribes an era that only really existed in the passionate political distance between two men. It is film at once fascinated by a single flashpoint in history and saddened by the way in which it passed, not through resolution (or revolution) but though a dismembering of the United States as a nation. It is a lament for that country's now-ringfenced political life, where it is possible to live without ever experiencing a properly dissenting viewpoint.

Or maybe it is just pining for the fact that political debate has just not been as delectable since.

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