If there is a main takeaway from the new documentary Greatest of Enemies, it is the revelation that there was a time prior to Television punditry. What a strange, less cluttered — and quieter — time it must have been.
A series of ten debates in between posh lefty intellectual Gore Vidal and posh righty intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., televised in 1968, are Very best of Enemies‘ main concern. The documentary posits that today’s proliferation of shouting heads on cable news can be traced back to this extremely moment in history. Of course, Buckley and Vidal are a lot more articulate and funnier than the average celebration shill to pop in on Fox News or MSNBC, but today’s mainstream rock music ain’t like it was in ’68 either.
The complete purpose these debates came to be is that ABC News was dramatically low on income at the time. They could not afford to do start off-to-finish coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions like their much more effective competition, NBC and CBS. Grasping at straws, they decided to do recap coverage at the finish of every night, including a debate between a liberal and a conservative. The film states that no a single at ABC thought this tactic would score them higher ratings than the other networks — it was just some thing to do. They picked Bill Buckley because he was currently known as a feisty, outspoken conservative who was not shy about acquiring himself in front of a Television camera. Then ABC picked Gore Vidal as his debate opponent since he was a similarly outsized personality, fond of Television appearances and bitterly opposed to almost everything Buckley stood for. (The feeling was mutual.)
Using the voice talents of Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal, the film hopscotches in between biographical vignettes about each of the combatants and chronological excerpts of the ten televised debates. Buckley founded the National Review, an influential conservative magazine, and he later became a pal and important behind-the-scenes adviser of Ronald Reagan. Vidal, meanwhile, was an essayist and novelist whose new book at the time of the broadcasts, Myra Breckinridge (later made into a semi-notorious film maudit), was a sexually explicit satire with a transsexual heroine. Each guys considered the existence of the other a single a harbinger of doom for the United States.
As promised, the two competitors come at each and every other with a ferocity that tends to make for exceptional tv — and okay documentary filmmaking. Directors Robert Gordon (Shakespeare Was a Huge George Jones Fan) and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) usually show heavily edited highlights of every single debate and round up a bunch of talking heads to clarify what generally happened. Ugh.
Do not get me wrong, these are excellent interview subjects with lots of fascinating factors to say, like Buckley’s equally opinionated brother Reid, the sharply analytical Christopher Hitchens, and the usually affable Dick Cavett. But I get irked by the selection to put the emphasis on tempo above content. It really is a widespread M.O. for contemporary documentary filmmakers, who want their films to be as entertaining as function films. But I am skeptical of the selection to hack many of these debates into bite-size nuggets followed by a handful of quick soundbites explaining what occurred. What is wrong with letting these conversations — the ostensible subject of the film — play out before us? I’m not suggesting the film should have gone the Point of Order route and eschewed all commentary, but the balance between these components is slightly tipped the incorrect way. In a heavyweight bout, you want to hear some play-by-play, but you also want to see the fight.
The exception that proves the rule is Buckley’s famed blow-up at Vidal in one of the last debates, soon after obtaining called a “crypto-Nazi.” Gordon and Neville let us see a lot more of this segment — as Buckley and Vidal’s mutual hatred builds steadily — until finally, the whole factor reaches a violent climax that would reverberate throughout both men’s lives for years afterwards.
At times with documentaries, the significance of the topic matter can be mistaken for the significance of the film itself. Best of Enemies is not an essential film. It is a slight, entertaining film about two vitally crucial figures in American politics and culture. As such, it is surely worth watching, and if viewers are inspired to look a bit deeper into the work and lives of these two men, then perhaps the film has accomplished its job.
The movie’s AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 presentation is an anticipated mishmash of video and film sources, though surprisingly none of it seems to be taken from compressed digital sources. This indicates that the worst-seeking of the lot is just original analog video material from the late ’60s (sometimes blown up to fill the 16 x 9 frame, often not). Much of the film material — even the beaten up archival stuff — demonstrates surprising clarity and detail. The present-day interview material, shot in HD, is obviously the best-hunting footage. Magnolia’s disc, as per usual, sports a generous bitrate, making no noticeable noise or artifacting beyond what is native to the original sources.
You gotta admit: it’s a small funny to settle in for a political documentary and be greeted by a trailer for DTS-HD sound. Even so, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is put to very good use, as the sound design is actually very busy and layered. Jonathan Kirkscey’s score often calls to mind the Moog-heavy compositions of Wendy Carlos, and has a very potent full-range sound. The disc also offers English SDH, plus French and Spanish subtitles.
(HD, 1:05:40 total) – A fascinating collection of additional soundbites and evaluation from several of the interviewees, including Television host Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother Reid. Of all these clips, the footage of the late Christopher Hitchens is the most beneficial addendum to the film due to the fact his comments tend to complicate the narrative of Buckley and Vidal, pointing out the significantly less reduce-and-dry aspects of their ideologies, as well as their oft-overlooked political similarities.
Interview with directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon (HD, 7:13) – The directors reflect on the 5-year method of making this documentary and how the story created and their attitudes toward their subjects changed over the years.
The idea of politics as showmanship is not new, but political showmanship has hardly ever been executed in such an entertaining fashion as in the erudite catfight that was the Buckley-Vidal Television debates. The documentary Best of Enemies successfully demonstrates why the debates became national news and how they have irrevocably impacted the media in the decades given that. It’s a little much less efficient at letting us in fact witness history as it was created. This is a story that deserves a small much more depth in the re-telling, but nonetheless this slick abridgment nevertheless comes Advisable.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his band’s new Nick Lowe tribute album.
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