Sigmund Freud famously withheld publishing "The Interpretation of Dreams " from 1899 to 1900 because he was so arrogant and/or prescient that he believed his work would shape the entire next century of Western civilization.
And it did.
Similarly, in hindsight, the people at the ABC television network could have hailed the 1968 William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal debates as "This is the future of television!" and "This is the future of American politics!"
And they would have been correct on both counts.
"Best of Enemies" is an extraordinarily timely, provocative, powerful, poignant and important film. But its overarching themes are so subtle that the film is not about what you think it is about and you will not comprehend its magnitude until the final sixty seconds and closing credits.
Many contemporary documentaries espouse a viewpoint and then makes facts rise to meet their theory. "Best of Enemies" avoids this cliché. It is a good old-fashioned documentary, a real documentation of an event, not a piece of propaganda that essentially preaches to the choir. Oddly, this is a film both righties and lefties can love.
Here are the prejudices that I brought to viewing "Best of Enemies:" while growing up in Stamford, Connecticut I worked after school and on weekends at Stevens Luggage and Fine Gifts. One day I waited on a gentleman buying an expensive clock and afterwards my co-worker Andrew McDonald incredulously asked, "Do you know who that was???" When I replied in the negative Andrew said, "That was William F. Buckley!"
At the University of Pennsylvania I took a class with E. Digby Baltzell who coined the acronym W.A.S.P. for White Angelo Saxon Protestants. I recalled my previous encounter with Mister Buckley (who actually came into the store on several occasions with his wife Patricia) and decided to read his book "God and Man at Yale." I found Buckley's book to be atavistic and chose to renew my subscription to "The New Republic" rather than exchange it for Mister Buckley's "National Review."
While living in Paris I was introduced to the work of Gore Vidal and was immediately taken by his profound insights regarding the hypocrisies in American government and politics. He was a brilliantly caustic writer and I daresay that I did not disagree with anything that I read in his non-fiction.
Thus, I viewed "Best of Enemies" cheering for Gore Vidal to trounce William F. Buckley and was bemused and somewhat shocked to learn that this was not the case. I actually experienced empathy for Mister Buckley, particularly when I saw how Vidal taunted and baited him like Muhammad Ali taunted George Foreman during the Rumble in the Jungle.
Watching these two first-rate minds spar in "Best of Enemies" there are clearly two winners, but neither of them happen to be Vidal or Buckley.
The first winner was Political Theater.
As one pundit states, the debates were not about politics but were rather about who was the better person, or more specifically which lifestyle was superior in the ongoing Kulturkampf. However, in bringing this personal debate to the national forum during the 1968 elections it drew the fault lines for what we currently know as the Democratic and Republican parties.
The second winner was Reality Television as the debates paved a clear path for the future of that medium, which seems to be dominated by the same uneasy antagonism that was birthed in the Vidal-Buckley debates.
If you did not think that history could be so much bloody fun then you should go see this film. And be careful not to miss the last two minutes when the directors hold the mirror up to nature and let us see through the eyes of Jon Stewart what our democracy has become.
I hope that every American History teacher shows this film in their classrooms for the next hundred years, or at least until the Democratic and Republican parties and all of the Political Action Committees are abolished and we vote by referenda through our mobile telephones the way constituents in a true democracy would. America was born as a representative democracy where elected officials represented the political views of the majority of their constituents. "Best of Enemies" clearly examines the circus that our government has become and the two men responsible for publicly and very intentionally engendering that mayhem.
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