Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best of Enemies (2015)

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Writers:    Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Features:  Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens

A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. They were broadcast by ABC to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions ahead of the elections. 

Late 60s was a crucial time for United States of America and both these intellectual heavyweights (bit of a stretch to call someone from the right that) recognized it to be so. Battle lines were drawn to determine which way the country was going to go and looking from the perspective of now it seems Vidal is finally winning in the US. But the 1968 election was won by Nixon and the Republicans. Event though the film doesn't try to show in some length what exactly they were debating, the little glimpses that we get is enough to conclude that the Democrats and Republicans haven't changed very much since then. 

Besides being a look at the careers of both Vidal and Buckley from the prism of their TV debates, the film also gives us the context in which ABC conceived it as an idea for convention coverage. They were the least popular of the three network TV channels and had to do something unconventional to get some foothold. The debates that they conducted with Buckley's meltdown on the 9th one ensured them enough eye-balls and ushered in the era of punditry that pass as news. I am not disparaging it but more often than not you get really shit people doing it. People who are really good doesn't choose to face each other like Vidal and Buckley did. So what you end up with is farces like Arnab Goswami's 'Newshour' here in India. 

India is also going through a decisive phase with liberals having their work cut out with a cultural fascist outfit ruling with a dude having dictatorial tendencies at the helm. 2019 elections could possibly seal the fate of 'Idea of India' once and for all. Both Buckley and Vidal were people with electoral aims but couldn't succeed. Both of them recognized that intellectual strength doesn't count for much in winning elections. That is the same for India as well and the sad part is that it is also lacking in the wider mainstream discourse. 

The documentary is a great watch and since I didn't knew much about the two people involved as well as their history, it was a very illuminating watch. I had in fact heard about both of them in passing. Gore Vidal died quite recently, in 2012, and I remember reading an obituary piece on him. Buckley's name gets frequently mentioned in articles covering the poor state of affairs in the Republican party and the current Republican presidential race kind of sums it up. The film took five years to complete because of struggles to secure funding, get interviews, and uncover archival footage. I presume the footage we see of Christopher Hitchens was exclusively shot for this film prior to his death.

Rating: 4/5