Buckley versus Vidal comes to a/perture in Winston-Salem

by Mark Burger

Dueling intellectuals ***’½ During the summer of 1968, third-place ABC News decided to try something a little different during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions by bringing together William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to offer live on-air debate.The end result, moderated – “refereed” might be a better word – by newscaster Howard K. Smith, was certainly something different. With Buckley representing the right and Vidal the left, these two brilliant intellectuals and men of letters engaged in what was jokingly (but accurately) compared to a prizefight, with insults and putdowns wielded like rapiers.In an era when political pundits dominate the media landscape, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s award-winning documentary Best of Enemies details the Buckley/Vidal debates in entertaining, illuminating fashion. The film breezes through the biographical basics – with John Lithgow reading Vidal’s reminiscences and Kelsey Grammer Buckley’s – and focuses on the debates (there were 10) while also providing a fascinating insight into television news back in ’68.Looking at the debate footage, Buckley and Vidal remain witty, erudite and well-spoken, even though diametrically opposed in their political and social beliefs. Both had run for public office (both losing), and both could methodically dominate a discussion with aplomb and surgical precision. Regardless which way you lean, Best of Enemies is a first-rate artifact of two titans in battle, and an absolute must for media mavens and political junkies. – Best of Enemies opens Friday at a/perture cinema, Winston-Salem