Best of Enemies


William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammar (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Tyanauer, Noam Chomsky, Sam Tanenhaus, Ginia Bellafante, Brooke Gladstone, Todd Gitlin, Andrew Sullivan. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

Politics can be as divisive a conversation as can be. Many are as passionate about their political beliefs as they are about their own families and umbrage can be taken with the slightest of provocations. The modern political process is about as civilized as we evolved cavemen can make it, right?

William F. Buckley Jr. in many ways was the father of conservative commentary. Patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, he embodied for many the conservative man; a bit condescending, a bit argumentative, and absolutely sure he was right. While Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and his ilk are nothing like Buckley – they are more shouters than speakers – much of their philosophy stems from this man for good or ill. As the founder and editor of the National Review, he helped shape conservative thought into what it is today.

Gore Vidal was an author and essayist, was from a well-connected Mid-Atlantic family (his father was a Senator). While he didn’t attend college, he was noted for being patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, for many he embodied the liberal man; a bit strident, a bit acerbic and absolutely sure he was right. The author of the controversial Myra Breckinridge, he was a gay man who believed that sexual identity should be done away with and everyone should be free to love whomever they wanted. He was very much ahead of his time and was a champion of lefty causes.

Both men ran for office unsuccessfully and both men absolutely hated each other with a passion, feeling that the other stood for everything they were against. Both believed that the political thoughts of the other would be the ruin of the country. Neither man would back down an inch from what they believed. You wouldn’t want to invite them to the same party.

And ABC News did just that. During the tumultuous 1968 elections, they were lagging in third place far behind NBC and CBS, both of whom had respected newscasters (David Huntley/Chet Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, respectively) leading their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. ABC, whom it was joked wasn’t in fourth place because there were only three networks, didn’t have the funds to go toe-to-toe with their competitors. So rather than compete, they sought to innovate. They decided to give the conventions only 90 minutes coverage each night and 30 minutes of that coverage would be given to discussion between Buckley and Vidal.

These debates turned into all-out wars as at first the commentators attacked the other position, then attacked the other personally. They were donnybrooks indeed – both men were master debaters, fine speakers and insightful. However the latter category all but disappeared as they cut each other to ribbons with well-placed barbs. Buckley apparently chose not to prepare for the debates, whereas Vidal assiduously studied and strategized. Buckley had faith in his own intellect that he could take his opponent apart with ease.

The Republicans had their convention that year in Miami and a great effort was made to keep protesters as far away from the venue as possible. The Democrats had their convention in Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley boasted that he would maintain law and order but that didn’t work out so well for him; there was heavy rioting from protestors and scenes of brutality by the Chicago police were broadcast for the nation to see.

It was in that atmosphere on the ninth debate out of ten that things reached a head between Buckley and Vidal. When the latter accused Buckley of being a crypto-Nazi, the conservative lost his cool, attacking Vidal with “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” While Buckley would later apologize for reacting in anger in print, the antipathy between the two men never lessened.

The movie essentially documents the debates, showing highlights from the broadcasts as well as background on the two combatants. We get plenty of talking head interviews, from Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus and from Vidal supporter the late Christopher Hitchens (who might have been the only modern political commentator to be able to hold his own with the two giants). We also get to hear the words written by the two, voiced by John Lithgow (Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (Buckley).

The subject is captivating and the filmmakers make a good case as to why this was a turning point not just in national politics, as a case can be made that modern conservatism had its beginnings in the 1968 elections, but also in the way politics were covered. The Vidal-Buckley debates weren’t the first usage of competing viewpoints as political analysis, but they captured the imagination of the viewing public at the time and came into more widespread use afterwards. These days, it’s almost the only kind of political analysis you can find.

Where the film falls short is in really giving us more than cursory background on Buckley and Vidal. We get the basics – stuff you could easily pick up from their Wikipedia pages – but little more about who these men were. It seemed to me that they were two sides of the same coin; perhaps that was why they loathed each other so much beyond the political disagreements. Maybe they saw in each other a little bit of themselves.

This is still fascinating stuff for anyone who follows modern politics and wants a sense of how we got to where we are now. We see the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News and of course the Internet trolls and wonder what happened to bring us to this point. To a large extent, it was this set of debates. It was the political/intellectual equivalent of going to an auto race and hoping for a crash. It is far more visceral and satisfying to watch people screech at each other rather than put any thought into what’s going on around us. And maybe that’s just human nature. But it is also depressing as all get out that we’ve devolved from respecting news to preferring shouting matches.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating archival footage. A precursor for modern political campaigning.
REASONS TO STAY: Is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Our Nixon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paul Taylor Creative Domain

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New Releases for the Week of September 4, 2015


Best of EnemiesBEST OF ENEMIES

(Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr. Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and LBJ had announced that he would not run for President. The counterculture was beginning to make its presence felt and there was a great deal of anger directed towards the American government for the first time. Richard Nixon, who would eventually win the presidency, was running against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with Alabama governor George Wallace running on an independent ticket, and the election was as vitriolic as it had ever been. Trying to make sense of everything, a series of televised debates was set up – not between the candidates, but between conservative commentator/essayist William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author Gore Vidal. Both men were urbane, charming and literate and both absolutely loathed one  another with a passion. These debates would change the way television covers politics.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some sexual content/nudity and language)

Chloe and Theo

(ARC Entertainment) Dakota Johnson, Theo Ikummaq, Mira Sorvino, Andre De Shields. Elders of the Inuit Eskimos, disturbed by the effects of climate change on the polar ice cap, send Theo to New York City to speak to the United Nations. He meets and befriends a young homeless woman who becomes inspired by his gentle wisdom. With the help of a kind lawyer, they will get the opportunity to present their message to the world; change our destructive ways before we are destroyed by them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

Mistress America

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson. A lonely college freshman in New York City is compelled by her mother to look up the daughter of the man mom is about to marry, a kind of soon-to-be stepsister. The two hit it off and the freshman begins to accept her proto-sister as a role model. However, as she is seduced by the energy and madcap schemes of her friend, things take an abrupt change. An early review for the film can be found here.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Tangerine

(Magnolia) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Clu Gulager. Christmas Eve in El Lay is like nowhere else, and even on Christmas Eve there can be prodigious drama. Sin-Dee, just released from jail after doing 28 days for soliciting and when the volatile working girl finds out that her pimp slash boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was cooling her heels, the proverbial ca-ca is going to hit the fan.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug use)

The Transporter Refueled

(EuropaCorp) Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright. The franchise is rebooted with Ed Skrein taking over for Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a dapper, fastidious sort who has a complicated set of rules for his vocation of transporting sensitive cargo for questionable people. A father-son bonding weekend is interrupted when he takes a job for a client, a quartet of lovely femme fatales who orchestrate a daring bank robbery. Unfortunately, they have stolen from the Russian mob and Frank is caught reluctantly but squarely in the middle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements)

Un gallo con muchos huevos

(Pantelion)  Starring the voices of Bruno Bechir, Carlos Espejel, Angelica Vale, Omar Chaparro. Amongst Mexican children, Huevo Cartoon is king and the animated television series makes it to the big screen and for the first time, to El Norte. A small, timid young chicken must find his inner rooster if he and his friends are going to save his family and his home from an evil rancher.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal The Loop
Rating: NR

A Walk in the Woods

(Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen. A travel writer rather than retiring to his beautiful wife and large family, decides to push himself one last time and hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. He can only find one friend to accompany him however; the irascible and womanizing Katz, who is more interested in sneaking out of town to avoid paying a debt. The peace and tranquility that the writer longs for goes right out the window with that decision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)