In 1968, the ABC network in the United States is scraping for news ratings. As the then director of news remarks: “We were third. Had there been four news networks, we would have been fourth”.
With less money that the other two networks, they are not able to give full coverage to the Republican Convention in Miami and the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Rather than serve up piece-meal coverage, they decide to get arch-conservative mouth-piece, and founder of National Review, William Buckley Jnr, to debate the conventions. Buckley once stated that the one person he would refuse to share the stage with, was Gore Vidal. So, of course, who better to be Buckley’s sparring partner?
Over ten nights, Buckley and Vidal – ideologically opposed, and yet oddly similar men – went head-to-head in what became much less about the conventions, and more about the personalities of the two protagonists. This famously lead, by debate nine, to Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a “little queer”. This moment was to haunt Buckley for the rest of his life.
Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville spent five years digging up archive footage, securing interviews and finding money to make this important, funny, extraordinary and, ultimately rather tragic, documentary.
Alongside the archival footage of the debates themselves, the film consists of interviews with people such as Buckley’s surviving brother, the late Christopher Hitchens and various friends and biographers of the protagonists. Readings from the two are delivered beautifully by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal.
This film is about Buckley and Vidal: two huge, intellectual, arrogant and fascinating men of their time. It is about politics. It is about the beginnings of the news broadcasting we now suffer under. It is about television. Above all, it is about how the personal becomes the political.
This is exciting cinema. So exciting, that I was disappointed when it ended: I wanted more.
With luck, this master-class in the art of the documentary will get a general theatre release in Australia.
Don’t miss it!
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Rating out of 10: 10
Best of Enemies screened as part of the Adelaide Film Festival, running 15-25 October 2015.