Somewhere during BBC1’s bizarre EU referendum debate staged in a cavernous Wembley arena, you had to wonder “When did political debate require TV spectacle?” The odd shouting match with its shiny, angular stage and ginormous audience was with TV in mind. There were buzz words, huge rounds of applause and a modern, arty set that seemed to be inspired by a dropped plate. And although some may detest it, somewhere along the line political discussion like this – discussion as entertainment – became popular. It’s popular among the people who watch it and those who broadcast it. In my eyes this can be attributed to one series of live debates in 1968 USA between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Best of Enemies is a documentary that pin points the birth of modern American political punditry, of TV politics, and in a way, personality politics. It is an account of two of the first real public intellectual personalities, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Ideological opposites, the documentary follows their famous series of debates on ABC in August 1968. Mixing archival footage, articles, passages from books and interviews, the film follows one of the most fiery series of debates ever broadcast. The two lash out at each other viciously about the topics of the time, about presidential candidates and political parties. Most of the time, their arguments are incredibly personal.
A sublimely entertaining film directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies is humorous, pumped full of testosterone and fuelled with rage. It’s a thoroughly intelligent production as well, playing with the personalities of Vidal and Buckley and altering our perceptions of them. It puts them on pedestals, billing them as titans and starting every clip of an argument with a ringside bell from boxing. Indeed, it is hard when watching to pull yourself away from the idea of these two men being Goliath celebrities in the game that is debate. For the audience, this is similar to gladiatorial combat. Discussion comes second.
And amidst this excitement, Best of Enemies is a study of America’s raging war between left and right. While we lap up the action greedily, what’s actually being talked about is fascinating. Vidal, a liberal intellectual, brings up gay rights, questions police authority and condemns the war in Vietnam. Buckley then is the opposite – a symbol of traditional Christian and conservative America. He says Vidal’s novels are cheap pornography. Vidal says Buckley is a crypto-nazi.
It’s thrilling stuff watching such erudite men battle it out. But you can’t help but feel guilty when watching them do so. Gordon and Neville do a fantastic job at making something exhilarating and then turning it on its head with a final segment that is a slightly sickening comment on the present. With CNN churning out programs full of fancy graphics and loudmouth speakers like Bill O’reilly shouting down people of different opinion, debate has become sport for America. It has become about views and moments of rage. And when you watch Vidal and Buckley toughing it out, there is an underlying sense of disgust and worry. There is disgust that this sort of debate set the path for politics on TV, and anxiety for what could come next. There is also a slight questioning of one’s judgement. Did I enjoy that for the fight or for what was being fought about?
There is a part of us all that yearns for a live fist fight over a civilised discussion.