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Best of Enemies (Blu-ray Review)

30 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.89 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for some sexual content/nudity and language.

Documentaries remain one of the things about the movies that have drastically improved in recent years, and for multiple reasons that include more portable equipment and an explosion in venues in which the results can be exhibited. Another is the care given to video archives and increased precision in their cataloging — which may be why William F. Buckley thought (and was apparently shell-shocked to learn otherwise) that the most dramatic moment in his 1968 series of televised commentary/debates with Gore Vidal had been destroyed. Well, no.

This super-crisp documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, which was even a bigger blast to me on a second viewing, chronicles how a Hail Mary pass by the poor-third of TV networks to come up with something helped lead to the kinds of political-donnybrook talk shows that prevail today. Brilliant as it turned out to be, the idea of teaming Buckley and Vidal was an act of desperation; Frank Rich is on hand here to quote someone’s famous line about how the way to end the Vietnam War would have been to televise it on ABC, guaranteeing its cancellation in 13 weeks. To emphasize the point, the Neville and Gordon throw in a few clips from shows that passed for ABC hits back in the day: “Land of the Giants” and “The Flying Nun.” If you want to know why hip boomers who’d grown up with and loved TV in the ’50s then quit watching it until “Saturday Night Live” (or, in fairness, the earlier brief oasis of “The Dick Cavett Show”), go no further.

So with CBS and NBC ruling all roosts, including the political, ABC gambled on having National Review publisher Buckley and recent Myra Breckinridge author Vidal spar for 90 minutes nightly during the ’68 Republican and Democratic Conventions, held respectively in Miami and Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago. There’s evidence here that these two effete intellectuals had a certain tortured respect for each other — and that even on a certain level, they had a surprising amount in common — but it was wrapped up in mutual loathing. Despite their ostensible journalistic job at hand, the ultra-devout Catholic Buckley couldn’t refrain from taking time on the air to bad-mouth (and, thus, give free publicity to) then-recent Myra — which he genuinely regarded as mincing around in Sodom and Gomorrah territory. As for Vidal, he wouldn’t even mention the National Review by name on the telecasts; usually, it was something like “your little publication.” It all culminated in the climactic main event and the one that Buckley later thought had been permanently expunged: the enraged moment when he called Vidal a “queer” on national television (Cavett’s description of the network’s response probably gets Enemies’ biggest guffaw).

An array of network executives, journalists, siblings, friends, social historians and Dick Cavett himself put the two men and their biographies in context — though for full illumination (to say nothing of pleasure), it’s worth seeking out First Run Features’ recent DVD of Smiling Through the Apocalypse about Esquire editor Harold Hayes, which covers a very small subset of the same material (and expanding on the part that does). There — but especially in that disc’s bonus section — you get to wallow in Vidal’s uproarious imitation of Buckley, including a kind of lizard-y thing he does with his tongue.

And speaking of bonus material, Enemies has a full hour of interviews (including writer/editor Sam Tanenhaus’s fabulous capper) that are as good as the documentary itself, including some insights into the character of Buckley, who’s persuasively defended as a decent guy (though his personality is one I still can’t personally abide). There are also hints here of how sad the final decade or so of Vidal’s decaying life became — but only hints, which is probably the right approach for a portrait meant to celebrate a time when talk shows boasted real talk (think of “The Jack Paar Program” as well, which is where Buckley got his pre-“Firing Line” TV start). Enemies is the kind of release I’ll often recommend to friends, who’ll then say, “I’ll watch it on-demand.” But here’s a case where, without the extras, you’re only getting maybe 60% of the package. Enemies was a delight when I saw it theatrically, but the Blu-ray is about twice as good. 


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