Best of Enemies
By Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Magnolia Pictures/2015/87 min.
I wonder what Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the two co-directors of the documentary Best of Enemies (2015), would say about Network. Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film examines the career of Howard Beale, a veteran newscaster who denounces television on air and then finds himself denouncing it night after night before an audience of millions. Much of the film’s brilliance derives from one paradoxical insight: media critique makes for great viewing. Tune in to any screen—iPhone, -Mac, or -Pad, or even an old fashioned television—and you’ll see hundreds of Beales, trashing the news/entertainment complex that’s made them millionaires.
Like Beale, Gore Vidal and William Buckley, whose ten debates on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions are the subject of Best of Enemies, never hesitated to call television the enemy. Vidal, a near-permanent talk show and game show guest in the 1960s, reflexively blamed “the camera” whenever he felt that someone had gotten the better of him; Buckley, for his part, used up large amounts of rebuttal time in the ’68 debates to complain to Howard K. Smith that Vidal was getting away from the issue, even as he ended his complaint with a jab that pushed the argument still further into the realm of the ad hominem. To argue that Vidal and Buckley were the original pundits, Neville and Gordon enlist a journalistic all-star team that includes Columbia professor Todd Gitlin, Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer, and most poignantly, the late Christopher Hitchens. Taken together, these men paint the pundit as a kind of Shakespearean fool, whose antics and contradictions disguise truths few would be willing to swallow straight.
There is nothing inherently subversive about a pundit who questions his own medium, nor is such a figure inherently establishmentarian—what counts is how he addresses these kinds of contradictions, and how important a role they ultimately play in his onscreen persona. It’s worth recalling that Network ends with a snowy television screen, while Best of Enemies begins with nearly the same image. Lumet rubs our faces in the contradictions of media critique and of Network itself; Neville and Gordon seem to prefer to get such matters out of the way as soon as possible. After going through the motions of self-interrogation, their documentary is formally tame, rarely upsetting the trade-off of archival footage and talking head interpretation.
Neville and Gordon indulge in a fair amount of nostalgia for the era they document, one in which—dear lord—it was news that five percent of the country controlled twenty percent of the wealth. If historians like Charles Murray are to be believed, 1968 represents the peak of the “bad Sixties,”¹ when the legitimate milestones of Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King, Jr. devolved into the anarchism of the National Organization of Women and the Black Panthers. 1968 was also, at least supposedly, a more liberal era in American history than the next half-century would bring, to which novelist Philip Roth could still apply his observation that “Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan . . . would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness.”² (Buckley’s activism would help make Reagan’s election possible and inspire Roth’s bitter quotation.) Yet the liberalism of the time was enough of a novelty that the mainstream wasn’t sure what to make of it. All those convinced that the ’60s were the golden age should pay close attention to the way Smith entertains Buckley’s claim that the demonstrators outside the 1968 DNC were being “provocative” by swearing at the police. They’ll also want to check out the raucous applause following Buckley’s quip, “On you I do,” in response to a young woman’s query, “Do you approve of miniskirts?”—an exchange the directors offer, rather questionably, as an illustration of the man’s wit and charm.
“They don’t make people like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley anymore,” Neville said in a recent interview.³ True enough. Still, this sounds suspiciously like hagiography, and indeed, one has to question some of the more effusive assertions about Buckley and Vidal that found their way into the final cut. That Buckley was the “greatest debater of his generation” seems a dubious proposition even after watching Best of Enemies, still more so if one YouTubes his clashes with James Baldwin or Noam Chomsky. Many of the observations Neville and Gordon squeeze from their interviewees sound like bombastic subheadings for middlebrow nonfiction—“the man who changed journalism,” “the greatest mind of the Right,” “the dawn of radicalism.” After ninety minutes of this, the documentary’s principle assertion, that the Vidal-Buckley debates “changed everything,” sounds like cheap attention grabbing, rather than serious opinion.
The directors mourn the passing of Buckley and Vidal and, with it, the end of eloquent political and cultural commentary on TV, but they’re equally quick to treat the debates as founding texts of screechy twenty-first century punditry, the first of the many straws that broke the informed citizen’s back. If one were to watch Best of Enemies instead of the ten debates themselves, one might think they have a point. Vidal rehearsed pages and pages of virtually interchangeable one-liners to fire at Buckley—“Always on the Right and almost always in the wrong” is a typical gem—and according to Fred Kaplan, his biographer, he walked into ABC with the intention of humiliating his opponent, not winning the arguments. In the three-week intermission between the RNC and the DNC, Buckley, supposedly unprepared for Vidal’s low blows, planned a counterattack. By the time ABC resumed its political coverage, Buckley had tracked down a nasty letter from Vidal’s old nemesis, Robert Kennedy (assassinated only weeks before), in which Kennedy recommended that Vidal be shipped to Vietnam.
But Buckley didn’t only spend those three weeks searching for mud to sling. He spent them studying the issues—the draft, the Tet Offensive, the Black Panthers, the Berkeley and Columbia demonstrations, the Nixon campaign—so that when he complained to Smith that Vidal was getting off the point, he had a credible claim to knowing what the point was. And while he’d certainly rehearsed his insults, Vidal displayed a command of the facts—the dates, the statistics—that puts most present-day newscasters, let alone most pundits, to shame. There’s nothing groundbreaking about balancing personal attacks with logical arguments, not for political commentators and certainly not for politicians. Television, supposedly in a state of total vacuity in the Fifties and Sixties, was the exception among the media of political discourse, not the norm. If Buckley and Vidal had the influence Neville and Gordon allege, then they weren’t robbing television of its innocence; they were reenacting the debating style they knew best. Neville and Gordon, behaving a little like pundits themselves, bolster their claims by replaying the most confrontational moments from the debates—and there are many—and leaving out all the facts and figures with which Buckley and Vidal tempered their outbursts.
The most notorious moment from the Buckley-Vidal debates took place on the heels of one of the most notorious moments of 1968—the beating and gassing of the nearly ten thousand Vietnam protestors demonstrating outside Chicago’s International Amphitheater. When Vidal accused Buckley of crypto-Fascism, Buckley snapped back, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
As The Best of Enemies would have it, Buckley’s outburst lost him the debate and haunted him for the rest of his days. This sounds more like twenty-first-century gaff hunting anachronistically applied to Sixties politics than Sixties politics anticipating twenty-first century punditry. One sentence, even one as aggressive as Buckley’s, rarely wins or loses a debate unless it’s treated as the only sentence that matters, as it is in the film’s last half hour. Here, Neville and Gordon bemoan the superficiality of politics, but offer only Beale-ish metacommentary in its place, even implying, absurdly, that Buckley’s shame drove him to long for death. The history of the lawsuit and counter-lawsuit launched by Vidal and Buckley, respectively, is perfectly interesting, but devoting a significant chunk of the documentary to it echoes the questionable achievement of the original scuffle; namely, distracting from 1) the brutality unleashed upon Vietnam protesters exercising their right to free speech, and 2) the chilling antipathy to the incident on both the Left and the Right.
Best of Enemies purports to be a study of punditry in its infancy, but it comes closer to showing punditry in mid-life crisis, when compiling odd bits of family lore into personal history becomes all-important. Its two protagonists aren’t lionized, but they are portrayed as the parents of a vast, snarling family, their blood ties to Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow as certain as the flourishing of O’Reilly and Maddow descendants for years to come. The result is a documentary that never rises above the pettiness it dramatizes and treats punditry’s supremacy as an almost scientific inevitability, when it’s really a far less intimidating creature: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jackson Arn is a New York City–based writer whose criticism has appeared in Film Comment and on Indiewire, and whose fiction has appeared in 4×4.
NOTES 1. Charles Murray, “Our Kind of People” in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012), 1–57. 2. Philip Roth, interview by Hermione Lee, “Philip Roth, The Art of Fiction No. 84,” Paris Review 93 (Fall 1984), 43–91. 3. Morgan Neville, “Best of Enemies: Directors’ Statements.” Lecture, Best of Enemies Premiere, Sundance Film Festival, January 23, 2015.