Tuesday, March 24, 2015

True/False 2015: Poison Pens

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

I'm late to the party this year when it comes to writing about the 2015 edition of the True/False Film Festival. The delay was unavoidable. Life gets in the way sometimes. I need to get all of this down before I forget it all. Fortunately, I took lots of notes this year.

Best of Enemies (2015, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon) resurrects the 1968 debates between arch conservative William F. Buckley and arch liberal Gore Vidal on the occasion of that year's national political conventions. "Debate," is probably the wrong word for what these were. Duels, is more like it. Some kind of bloodsport. A harbinger for what media discourse on politics would later become. Buckley and Vidal were mortal ideological enemies and they jabbed at each other with spears tipped with venom, with invective scrawled with acid.

The narrative goes like this: in 1968, ABC News hired Vidal and Buckley to a series of debates for the Republican and Democratic national conventions. At the time, ABC was the perennial last-place finisher among the three major networks (remember when there were three major networks? Yeah.). Both NBC and CBS had more respected news divisions, and both networks planned gavel to gavel coverage of the events. ABC, running on a shoestring, chose to air nightly recaps of the conventions with the Vidal/Buckley debates as the capper. What they got from the debates wasn't just a friendly joust across party lines. Vidal and Buckley set out to destroy each other. The film argues--forcefully--that this is the origin of the current state of political commentary in the United States: one devoted to the politics of personal destruction. It's an irony not lost on the filmmakers that the current state of political media would never put two such effete intellectuals on screen for such a pursuit. The past truly is another country. For ABC, this event put their news division on the map. Four years later, all three networks were following their model. No more would the networks cover political conventions gavel to gavel. For Buckley and Vidal, the event left scars. More for Buckley than Vidal, though. Vidal succeeded in baiting Buckley into an ugly outburst in the end, one that haunted Buckley for years afterward. One of the commenters mentioned in passing that, after this incident, Vidal leaned over to Buckley and said: "Well, they certainly got what they're paying us for..."

When I saw the description of Best of Enemies on the True/False schedule, I wasn't sure it was a film I wanted to see. It's a kind of documentary that I normally roll my eyes at, constructed of archive footage and talking heads interpreting that archive footage. This isn't always very cinematic, and I've gotten to a point where I want my documentaries to play as movies as much as I want them to play as journalism or essay. The archival documentaries haven't always kept up with the state of the art. As I made my way to the exit after Best of Enemies, I was already framing my mea culpas. This was terrific. True, it's not a film that stretches the boundaries of what non-fiction films can do, but that doesn't matter much. It does enough to play like a movie that you don't taste a dry recitation of events. The filmmakers punch up the form a bit with playful editing between their news footage and footage, for example, of Vidal on Playboy After Dark or snippets of the film version of Myra Breckinridge or Buckley's appearances on game shows or hobnobbing with the Reagans, that the film is constantly surprising. There's a playfulness in the way the film phrases the debates as prize fights, too, complete with a bell for the rounds. More, the filmmakers have cast the interior voices of Buckley and Vidal perfectly, with Kelsey Grammar reading from Buckley and John Lithgow reading from Vidal. The form of the film turns out to be fun in spite of my expectations.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

More: the story itself is riveting. You can get away with almost anything in a documentary if you can tell a compelling story. This film has two central characters who are larger than life, and whose verbal sparring would put a screenwriter to shame. Vidal comes off best, I think, but given that he manages to keep his composure while Buckley eventually loses it colors this, particularly the way in which Buckley eventually loses it. He calls Vidal a queer on national television and threatens to punch him in the nose after Vidal describes him as a crypto-Nazi. When, after writing about the experience after the fact, Buckley sues Vidal for defamation, it plays like the actions of a bully. The joust, if you can call it that, lasted for years afterward. These two men really, REALLY hated each other. Watching them try to one-up each other is fascinating.

There's a broader historical tableau involved here. The 1968 Democratic convention is one of the key events in the history of the late 1960s and you can see in it, and in Buckley and Vidal's interpretations of it, the fissure between left and right in American politics start to widen into an impassible chasm. Additionally, there's the narrative of how media shapes politics--how it has already shaped the politics of the last four decades--and in that narrative lies the true power of the film. For all the fun to be had from watching its protagonists spar, this is a sobering film, one that looks at the first steps on the path to hell. We are all the best of enemies now.

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Dr. AC said...

Great write-up and thank you for providing all the context. I knew of the two men, and vaguely of these debates, but had no idea about the impact it had. I'd be game to check this one out - thanks for putting it on my radar.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

It's a surprisingly fun movie. I think you'll dig it.