Best of Enemies

★★★
Informative and, at times, tremendously engaging.
Movie Review #1,007

best_of_enemies_ver2

Magnolia Pictures
Documentary
1 hour, 27 minutes
Rated R (some sexual content/nudity and language)
Released July 31, 2015
Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Co-writers: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

I’ve always considered the ’60s my favorite period of American history. Kennedy, the Cuban missile crisis, Bay of Pigs, the moon landing, Medicare, Medicaid, counterculture, and yada yada yada. Of course I was born three decades later, so my vision of the ’60s comes entirely from history textbooks, but if there’s any one reason at all that I wish I were fifty years older, it’d be so that I could’ve experienced the 1960s as a young adult just beginning to learn about politics and the world around him in that sense. I’d imagine the ’60s would have been a fascinating time to live through at that age.

I’ve held to my love for the ’60s over any other decade for quite some time. I don’t know everything though, and I’m surprised by a lot of what I don’t know. One of those events I just was never unaware of, were the Buckley-Vidal debates. I’d heard of Vidal only because his name appeared in the title of a Netflix documentary. I had no clue he was, though, and I hadn’t even heard of Buckley, until I watched “Best of Enemies”.

I know a lot more about both individuals now. “Best of Enemies” is informative, and for that, it is very engaging. Granted, it doesn’t go much beyond the point of providing information, but still, it’s a gripping documentary. I suppose that’s all that truly matters, anyway.

What makes the movie such a watch is the complex profiles that are revealed of the two titular men, naturally, through interviews. Gore Vidal was an author and a screenwriter. He earned his fame for Myra Breckinridge, and notoriety for “Caligula”–the former being perhaps the first novel to frankly discuss homosexuality, and the latter being one of the most infamously sexually explicit movies ever made. Vidal was openly gay, but he believed that people should not identify as homosexual or heterosexual. He was also a political journalist; you could probably guess which of the two major American parties he supported. It’s curious that William F. Buckley, Jr. came from a similar upbringing–wealthy family, boarding school, and beyond–but somewhat unsurprising that he’d be different in just about every way. It’s as if God created these two men to be antitheses of one another. It’s not just one’s liberal, one’s conservative; it was even frivolous details, like their height, that seemed to be in great contrast. In fact, the first thing I noticed was how tall Vidal was and how short Buckley was.

Buckley and Vidal despised each other so much that they thought each other to be the poison that could destroy America if given the opportunity. Forget the interviews that reflect on who they were and how they thought–it’s the footage of their debates in 1968, right around the time of the DNC and the RNC, that hits home. “Best of Enemies” is a documentary, but I’m still going to apply the word “tour-de-force” here. I was absolutely hooked. It’s rather ironic that these bits of footage–essentially scenes in the film, with pacing that completely rejects that of the rest of the film–are what fascinate more than anything else. We could watch these two bicker like children for hours, and it does get pretty exciting. There’s even a climactic gasp that holds for at least five minutes, as we hear Buckley’s controversial “sock you in the goddamn face” remark to Vidal. It feels as if we’re watching it on live, national television.

“Best of Enemies” does well engaging us by means of presenting us fascinating profiles and intriguing debate footage. I just wish it had something more to offer. Had I known the intrigue would lie solely in those two elements, I might have done a Wikipedia search on Buckley and Vidal, and watched the debate videos on YouTube.

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