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

The U.S. vs. John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono express their First Amendment rights.

(Lionsgate) John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Gore Vidal, Walter Cronkite, John Dean, Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Angela Davis, David Peel, Tom Smothers, Paul Krassner, Leon Wildes. Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

I’ve made no secret that John Lennon is one of my all-time heroes. You would think that a documentary of the man’s life would be like catnip to me.

And in many senses it is just like catnip, albeit somewhat diluted. The movie focuses on his post-Beatles days to a very great extent, particularly on his anti-war activism and resulting attempts from the United States government to get the ex-Beatle deported as an undesirable alien.

John Lennon was never one to stand still for injustice, even when it was being perpetrated on himself. He fought back and would eventually win in a story that is fascinating and indeed inspiring, although you get little sense of it here.

The documentary starts with Lennon’s defense of former MC5 manager (and anti-war radical) John Sinclair who was sent to jail for ten years for selling an undercover cop two joints, which even then seemed excessive. Lennon would perform at a benefit concert for Sinclair, who would wind up serving 29 months of his ten year sentence thanks largely in part to the high-profile supporters like Lennon which would pressure the Supreme Court of Michigan to overturn the law Sinclair was convicted on as unconstitutional. However, the negative fall-out was that the federal government began to take an interest in the pop singer.

For his part, Lennon’s introduction and eventual marriage to Japanese artists Yoko Ono would help to direct his energies to anti-war efforts and pro-peace. This would lead to highly publicized stunts like his bed-in honeymoon; Lennon was fully aware of his celebrity and how to use it properly, and he was quite willing and able to use it that way.

This was intolerable to an administration that wasn’t averse to fighting dirty as well, and at the impetus of a group of conservative politicians led by Senator Strom Thurmond, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings to deport Lennon due to a marijuana conviction in England years earlier as an undesirable.

The actual fight against the INS and, by extension, the U.S. government, was more or less one of attrition as most of the fight consisted of hearings, delays, stays and legal maneuvering by the government lawyers and Leon Wildes, Lennon’s immigration lawyer. In reality, that aspect of the story was rather boring so the filmmakers more or less overlook it.

Unfortunately, what the filmmakers do rely on is a barrage of talking head interviews with people like G. Gordon Liddy (one of the few giving the opposing viewpoint, which while not a requirement for a good documentary can make a documentary better), Yoko Ono, Black Panther Bobby Seales, authors Vidal and Chomsky as well as other luminaries of the period and later giving their opinions on what Lennon was doing, or possibly thinking.

What’s missing here is a real sense of who Lennon was. We mostly see the events here through Yoko’s eyes which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing – she was his soul mate after all, and knew him better than anybody did – but it turns more or less into the Yoko show, opining that Lennon wasn’t a fully realized human being until Yoko wandered into his life which seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Still, while this could have been a much better documentary, there are things worth seeing in it, like the archival footage of Lennon’s protests and snippets of the man’s music. However, the movie spends too much time on its own agenda – that of comparing the anti-war efforts of Vietnam to modern anti-war efforts against Iraq and painting Yoko Ono as Lennon’s adult conscience – to really bring the story of John Lennon to life. I think for the time being we’ll have to continue to rely on his own music to do that for us.

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful footage brings the anti-war efforts to life, and illustrates Lennon’s passion for the cause.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images of sensuality and violence, some drug references and a few bad words, but by and large this is fine for mature teens, who should be seeing works like this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lennon’s early years will be depicted in Nowhere Boy, to be released in October 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted footage is scarcely notable, the scenes here that went on the cutting room floor contain a myriad of interesting scenes, including assassin Mark David Chapman’s 2000 parole hearing, Lennon’s final rehearsed concert and some footage on his early years.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant