Best of Enemies
When Oscar season rolls around, it is hard to imagine that any documentary can challenge “Best of Enemies” in that important but generally overlooked category. In bringing the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions in 1968 back to life, directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon give the audience a firsthand look at how television news changed forever.
1968 was a poisonous year, and as a college junior I was able to occupy a front-row seat. While the Vietnam War raged and a draft loomed for guys my age, all hope seemed to be destroyed with the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Bobby Kennedy in June. A presidential election loomed in November with Americans likely to be left to choose between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. A contest between Tricky Dick and Hubert (“Let me defend LBJ”) Humphrey pointed in a disastrous direction no matter who won.
As the Republican convention approached in Miami that summer, with the Democrats holding their own weeks later in Chicago, television news remained peaceful, uninvolved and largely quiet. CBS had Walter Cronkite, NBC had Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, while ABC trailed in the basement with Howard K. Smith. Unable to afford gavel-to-gavel coverage as used by its two rivals, ABC decided to try something new by employing William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to appear nightly as commentators. This amazing documentary relives those magic moments when these two smug elitists dueled to the edge of a philosophical death.
Though both Buckley and Vidal were supposed to be analyzing the conventions, they basically spent their time trying to rip each other to shreds. Buckley had given birth to the modern day conservative movement with the creation of both the National Review and the TV show “Firing Line.” While living three months out of each year on the Italian coast, Vidal had written a number of acclaimed literary works including “Myra Breckenridge.” Having both run and lost races for public office, these guys had a great deal in common apart from the fact that they genuinely hated each other.
Television had never seen confrontation in the newsroom prior to the encounter between Buckley and Vidal, and it will leave you both laughing and astonished as you watch their debate become personal. Among many memorable exchanges seen in this documentary, the moment where Vidal accuses Buckley of being a “crypto-Nazi” with Buckley angrily responding by calling Vidal “a queer” is a golden moment that will live on in television history. Buckley lost his cool facing the well-planned taunts from Vidal, and the ill-will followed them to their graves.
Interestingly, while Buckley and Vidal remain the centerpiece of this penetrating documentary, our directors turned the camera on the mayhem that was happening outside both conventions. In Miami, a nearly all-white Republican convention had to face growing hostility from a black culture still seething over the death of King, while the Democratic convention exploded in a sea of violence on the street. Law and order was the mantra of both Nixon and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, and police agencies around the country embraced that command in racial terms still being played out to this very day.
I don’t know about many of you, but it is tough for me to watch TV news today. Instead of information we get bickering and opinions, and it becomes at times far too annoying to watch.
This entrancing documentary demonstrates that thanks to the Buckley/Vidal wrestling match in 1968, fair and balanced news went to the grave along with Cronkite, Eric Sevareid and Huntley/Brinkley.
The End of the Tour
The problem with “The End of the Tour” film is that director James Ponsoldt succeeded in making a talented American writer look like a dullard. Quite frankly, I made a major mistake when I drafted my initial review as I pointed my criticism in the wrong direction.
To begin with, “The End of the Tour” is a 1-hour, 46-minute movie that seems infinitely longer. Following David Foster Wallace’s tragic suicide in 2008, former Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky capitalized on this tragedy by writing an account of his five-day interview with Wallace that occurred in 1996. Having watched this disappointing film based on that account, it is little wonder that Rolling Stone rejected Lipsky’s submission even though Wallace’s 1,000-page novel, “Infinite Jest,” had just made him a literary celebrity.
Lipsky traveled to Wallace’s small ranch home in Champaign, Illinois, where he accompanied him on a short book tour. Sleeping in Wallace’s unkempt abode, the movie tries to allow the audience to penetrate the author’s mind. However, the exchange between the two spends a lot of time saying very little, and you are left with the feeling that Lipsky failed to penetrate Wallace’s protective shield.
Broken down to its core, Ponsoldt’s film pokes around the edges of Wallace’s fragile mental state. Unfortunately, about the only conclusion you could draw was that he wore his famous bandanna as an attempt to keep his head from exploding.
Regardless, Jason Segel makes the most out of his portrayal of the famous writer whose free time was largely dedicated to watching television. It was hard to believe that a literary icon who simply wanted to teach at a small local college could exhibit little hope for a future that appeared empty despite his fame.
Like Segel, Jesse Eisenberg acts out of character in his role as David Lipsky. Though it was clear that Lipsky danced around the edges of what appeared to be Wallace’s psychological emptiness, you were left with the impression that it was Lipsky, not Wallace, who was a likeable lout in way over his head.
Unfortunately, let me close by saying that this tepid film left Wallace hiding in the background. The fault of making a slow film about a complicated, legendary writer lies with Ponsoldt, not Wallace.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.