Thursday, August 20, 2015

Best of Enemies [2015]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (N. Murray) review  

Best of Enemies [2015] (cowritten and codirected by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville) is a documentary about the commentary / debating segments that ABC News had contracted from Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr to spruce-up / liven-up its otherwise certain destined to be 3rd place (among then three competing television networks) and forgotten television coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic Party Conventions.   The network chose well ...

Though both Patrician, both were articulate and often quite witty spokesmen for (and indeed epitomized the intellectual foundations of) their respective opposite ends of the American political spectrum at that time:

Gore Vidal knew both Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy personally.  The former actually campaigned for him when he, briefly, took a stab at running for the U.S. Congress (for a seat in upstate New York) in 1960.  The latter, he knew as Jacqueline Bouvoir BEFORE she became J.F.K.'s fiancée / wife.  Vidal who was gay, became famous in the 1950s-60s in the Eastern American intellectual establishment for his increasingly provocative novels [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]  about sexuality, homosexuality, transsexuality (culminating perhaps with his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]).  And yet that's NOT ALL that he wrote.  He called himself "America's biographer" and certainly he would have had a right to at least "throw his name in that ring," as he wrote a series of quite weighty tomes (lightened by his characteristic irreverent tone) on Lincoln [GR] [WCat] [Amzn], America's Founding Fathers [GR] [WCat] [Amzn], as well as America's increasingly imperialist tendencies in the modern era [GR] [WCat] [Amzn].  Much of "Liberal" / "Blue State" America today could trace its roots back to him.

On the flip side, William F. Buckley, Jr was a heavy weight himself.  He knew and was friends of both Barry Goldwater and especially Ronald Reagan.  His weekly National Review became sort of the "Federalist Papers" of the modern American Conservative movement.  Neither was he a "mindless Conservative" / "Reactionary."  Catholic, he took on Pope John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical Mater et Magistra, with a famous essay "Mater Si, Magistra No" which was both serious (putting the silliness of the current gas-bag Limbaugh-dine conservatives' complaints about current Pope Francis' environmental encyclical Laudato Si to shame) and also laced with his own brand of wit. 

Not that Buckley was right, IMHO. I do think that he and many of his head-shorter contemporaries today fundamentally misunderstood / misunderstand the Popes' role / teaching.  The Popes DON'T advocate for "Communism" (!?) BUT THEY DO remind the world of fundamental moral principles: We have responsibility for our brothers' / sisters' welfare (we are "our brothers'/sisters' keepers" [Gn 4:9]) as well as for "our common home" (which was given to us by God [Gn 1:28] originally AS A PARADISE [Gn 2:8]).  

What was clear to anyone, however, was that Buckley like Vidal HAD A BRAIN, and arguably much if not all of what is reasonable in contemporary Conservative "Red State" American thought could be traced back to him and The National Review that he founded.

So ABC chose its two commentators well.  How'd it go?

Here, contrary to most critics (and reviewers of the current film) I would suggest that the "Debates" between Buckley like Vidal, in as much as they were "debates" at all, ended _badly_.  Basically, what is most remembered of them (and certainly underlined _over and over_ in the current documentary about them) was that in the last "debate" Gore Vidal called Buckley a "crypto Nazi" and Buckley in turn called Vidal a "queer" and that SOMEHOW Gore Vidal "won the debate" as a result.  Why?  Presumably because it's okay to call someone "a  crypto Nazi" BUT NOT "a queer."

And there we have it.   I would suggest that BOTH MEN FAILED.  And I would agree that their childish if certainly mesmerizing presence on the television screen back in 1968 (but the alternative would have been watching even more of police officers hitting protesters with clubs ...) INFLUENCED (though in my mind BADLY) political "debate" on television ever since.  Basically, these two "Giants" gave us the first "CNN Crossfire" show, when, sigh ..., they could have done so much better.

So in the end, I left the theater disappointed, though perhaps understanding a little better why we are in the country we are today: Nearly 50 years ago, two of the truly best and most articulate minds of the time were invited to debate the great questions of their time, and instead ... they chose to call each other names.  Sigh ...

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