As is often the case with the most significant media innovations, the introduction of the the sort of pervasive punditry that absolutely infests broadcast new a few decades later came about as a sort of desperate accident. ABC was mired in last place, trailing well behind competitors CBS and NBC, when it came time to cover the presidential nominating conventions of the Republicans and the Democrats. The other networks opted for their usual gavel-to-gavel coverage, something ABC couldn’t afford. (It’s worth noting that this was at a time when the conventions were far more likely to be newsworthy events, as opposed to the heavily stage-managed anointments of definitely pre-determined candidates that they are now.) To help fill broadcast time, they decided to go for one of the cheapest options they could imagine, plopping two public intellectuals before a plain curtain and having them debate the issues of the day. Looking to hit both ends of the spectrum, they enlisted far-right William F. Buckley, Jr. and to represent the liberal viewpoint, they opted for Gore Vidal. Thus, argument television was born.
At least that’s the thesis of the new documentary Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. The two filmmakers have delivered their most prominent work at the helm of music documentaries (Neville won an Oscar for Twenty Feet from Stardom) and they approach their subject here with a telling sense of showmanship, honing in on the undisguised pleasure Buckley and Vidal have in dismantling one another. There are the standard interviews with biographers, acquaintances, witnesses, and more distant observers (including the somewhat jarring presence of the now-deceased Christopher Hitchens, looking more than ever like a drain tumbler of scotch made human), but Gordon and Neville know the main show is the archival footage of the two men, both separately and locked in a aura of animosity before the news cameras. They are opposites in every way — Buckley forever appears to be proudly showing off the cluster of canary feathers that rim his mouth, and Vidal has the eternal air of someone who’s just decided his planned seduction isn’t actually worth his time — except for an urgent need to publicly set their intelligence flaring like the open burner that keeps a hot air balloon aloft.
What surprises somewhat, then, is the absence of real substance from the on-air debates, at least according to the hearty serving of them offered up in the movie. In a manner all too familiar to anyone who makes the mistake of suffering through a representative sampling of current cable news, Buckley and Vidal obstinately hold their own declared sides of the political war and devote most of their individual energy to the task of destroying their opponent. There’s precious little advocacy of positions in a reasoned, measured way and a whole lot of shouted boilerplate. Despite what Best of Enemies suggests, there was certainly commentary in television news previously, but it had probably never before been singed down to this sort of primal brutishness. In demeanor, Buckley is the nastier of the two (and the one who delivered the most famed threat, complete with language that tromped on FCC regulations of the time), but Vidal is possessed of his own calmer viciousness, knowingly pressing barbed hooks into his foe’s psyche. The clarity of the comparison to modern media frees Gordon and Melville from needing to overstate their point. The future descent of the discourse is right there on the screen, flickering away.