The Contenders, by David Bax
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies looks at a brief moment in 1968 when televised political commentary was both fun and informative. Those two words are perfect descriptors for the film itself, which delights and enraptures with quick wit and pacing that provides a glimpse both at what once was and at what could have been. In regards to the latter, it’s a positively inspiring movie that should rightly be seen by everyone one both sides of our politically bifurcated populace.
During the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions, ABC was a distant third place network. As interviewee Frank Rich relates, it was common at the time to joke that the way to end the Vietnam war was to put it on ABC and it would be canceled in thirteen weeks. Scaling back their convention coverage due to budgetary concerns, they opted instead to focus on nightly debates between two representative of the parties. To their credit and our benefit, they chose William F. Buckley, Jr. on the right and Gore Vidal on the left. The two erudite and sharply intelligent men spent ten nights in total in florid and quick-witted contention. Gordon and Neville give us the best of each night with background and talking heads for context, while Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow voice the writings of Buckley and Vidal, respectively. And all of it is done at a crackling clip.
Best of Enemies embraces the obvious but fitting metaphor of the debates as a boxing match. Its first act builds toward the initial night the way Rocky builds to the showdown with Apollo Creed. Unlike Rocky, though, this film doesn’t make us wait too long. Once the first match starts – Gordon and Neville begin each round with the ring of a bell, of course – we’re off and running.
What soars above all the rest (the ABC studio ceiling crashing down in Miami; the riots in Chicago) is the personalities of these two men. The basics of their left and right positions are familiar today yet their tone, glib but reserved, makes for a better show than the screaming of pundits you’re likely to see if you turn on cable news right now. Even the ad hominem attacks that make up more of the discussion than the actual issues are devastatingly elegant and never delivered with a raised voice. Until, that his, one of them does lose his temper, a move that haunted him the rest of his life but would be an exceedingly salable trick today.
In addition to Rich, the talking heads include Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Buckley’s own brother and more. They remain as ebullient about the debates as they likely were when they aired and they are as interested in providing context as they are in continuing the conversations themselves. Perhaps they’re as desperate as we are for more intelligent political discussion on a nationally televised stage.
As fun as Best of Enemies is – and it is a lot of fun – it leaves us with a bittersweet feeling about those ten nights. One the one hand, it’s tempting to hold them up as an example of what we’d like to see more of, the parties taking each other on with the size of their intellect, not the volume of their exclamations. The right has a particular problem with this today; at least Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher can be snide windbags while using their inside voices. On the other hand, in the same way a great movie like Jaws led to an ongoing plague of summer blockbuster dreck, these debates were the progenitor of the modern “news” approach of commentary over coverage. This was the invention of punditry as we know it. But at least back then, it was fun.