Best of Enemies

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Dec 10, 2015
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Best of Enemies

Director

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Release Date(s)

2015 (November 3, 2015)

Studio(s)

Participant Media (Magnolia)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: B-
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: B

Best of Enemies (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

There was a time in this country when Americans of good will, whatever side of the political spectrum they might be on, could still sit down together at a table in friendly conversation, and find enough common ground and agreement to govern a nation effectively for the benefit of everyone. Then 24-hour cable news happened, and we all seemingly lost our minds.

Most expert observers point to the 1990s as the specific timeframe things finally went horribly wrong. But if you really want to know where the seeds of our insanity were planted, look no further than the summer of 1968, and ABC’s television coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. At the time, ABC was a third-place network, and thus was unable to afford the kind of gavel-to-gavel coverage that CBS and NBC were producing. As a low-budget alternative, they chose instead to cover only part of each convention, but then to fill air time by pitting the (so called) sharpest intellectual minds that Conservatism and Liberalism could offer at the time against each other in a debate of the issues of the day. Enter William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal.

They seemingly agreed on only two things: That they were each the preeminent ideological representative of their respective political parties… and that they each had to destroy the other’s argument with extreme prejudice. Buckley and Vidal respected each other’s intellectual capabilities keenly… and hated each other just as much. What followed then was a battle of wits, ideals, and egos, broadcast in live “tune-in tomorrow” installments on national television to an audience that had never seen anything like it. Simply put, the nation was riveted. ABC’s ratings went from worst to first each time these two men appeared on the air together. And the business interests of TV journalism learned a critical lesson: Extreme views, controversy, and confrontation are the keys to boosting ratings and maximizing advertising revenue. It’s no wonder then that today’s Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have all devolved into adversarial Left v. Right partisan hackery by ever more outrageous pundits. The business of cable news is no longer simply to inform the national discourse… it’s to create enormously profitable infotainment.

Best of Enemies documents these 1968 debates and the lives of the two men who fought them. It puts Buckley and Vidal, and their respective views of the world, in personal context, allowing you to see the events that led them to this confrontation and also the personal fallout the debates caused them both later. In so doing, the documentary also provides a bit of much-needed perspective on modern TV journalism… or at least what passes for it these days. Like the debates themselves, the story of these two characters is truly fascinating. One of the first things Buckley did, after founding the National Review, was to drum out the Conservative movement’s crazier elements and bring a much-needed intellectualism and rationality to bear. But he lived long enough to see much of that hard work undone by base appeals to fear, emotion and anti-intellectualism. Vidal, meanwhile, became a bitter ex-pat, whose literary works gradually fell out of popular favor. He reportedly hated Buckley to his dying days. These, it seems, are deeply tragic figures.

On Blu-ray from Magnolia, this documentary is presented in 1.78:1 HD widescreen in A/V quality that’s solid if unremarkable. This is hardly a reference quality viewing experience, as much of the source material is transferred from old, analog, and archival news film and video sources. Still, the disc looks and sounds as good as it needs to. Audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD MA format, with subtitles available in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

Surprisingly, the Blu-ray offers a nice batch of supplements, including an Interview with Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon (7:13), 10 Additional Interviews (totaling about 1:06:00 – including additional comments by Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, George Merlis, James Wolcott, Lee Edwards, Lynda Bridges, Matt Tyrnauer, Reid Buckley, and Sam Tanenhaus), and the film’s trailer. There’s some genuinely good and interesting viewing to be had in those bonus interviews.

If Best of Enemies is deficient in any way, it’s that it fails to completely illustrate the ways in which the ideals these two men fought over have changed with time. Conservatism and Liberalism, Republican and Democrat… these things no longer represent quite the same things they did in 1968. Our ignorance of this fact, and our inability to recall those original meanings, are at the root of much of today’s political dysfunction. Still, the documentary remains a riveting look at two undeniably brilliant and all-too human characters, whose triumphs and failings then foreshadowed our own.

- Bill Hunt

 

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