Best of Enemies review: Buckley v Vidal

The animosity between a pair of US political pundits makes for a diverting documentary

Best of Enemies
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Director: Robert Gordon...
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Gore Vidal, William F Buckley
Running Time: 1 hr 24 mins

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary on a famous rivalry may not be the best film of the year, but punditry fanatics will find it among the most entertaining. Best of Enemies is as much a sports documentary – the When We Were Kings of poisonous discourse – as it is a political film. We meet the competitors separately. We learn of preliminary bouts. Then they are brought together for a series of intellectual maulings that lead eventually to one unchecked roundhouse. The fighter on the receiving end declares himself the victor.

Neville and Gordon take us back to 1968 and the debates between Gore Vidal, left-wing libertine, and William F Buckley, John the Baptist of the New Right, that accompanied that year’s party conventions on ABC television. As the late Christopher Hitchens explains, this was no feigned disagreement between half-hearted rivals. “They really do despise one another,” he says. “Each thought the other was quite dangerous.”

There is, indeed, no doubt that both men were confirmed in profound political differences. But Best of Enemies reminds us how chillingly similar they were in delivery and demeanour. Those long subordinate clauses peppered with patrician vowels have almost entirely vanished from US broadcast media.

One of the few prominent people to have used them recently was the fictional Frasier Crane and, with double neatness, the film- makers bring Kelsey Grammar, a political conservative, on board to read Buckley’s cutting words. The liberal John Lithgow reads for Vidal.


There is so much to ponder in this delightful film. ABC was, by 1968, losing the broadcast wars – scenery crashes from the decrepit set at one point – and it saw the Vidal/Buckley debates as a kind of Hail Mary pass. It paid off for the network and the combatants, but, notwithstanding the oratorical brilliance on display, the end result may have been damaging to political television. Argument replaced analysis and ultimately led to the miserable sound of Anne Coulter yelling neo-con baloney at the uninterested wind.

Buckley won the war: the country moved to the right and Ronald Reagan, a disciple, ultimately ended up in the White House. But Vidal may have been happy winning this little battle. “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered,” Buckley eventually snapped in response to some particularly low taunts.

Vidal’s triumphant smirk is something to behold. He saw Buckley into the grave.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist