By Elias Savada.
Oscar-winning (2013’s Twenty Feet From Stardom) documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, a Grammy Award winning writer, author, and filmmaker, collaborated back in 2007 on the film Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, which later (2013) became a 463-page book by Gordon. A new version of the film is in the works, as is a possible musical adaptation by Gordon. Neville will produce. Before that happens, they have reunited for another feature that is apparently not Broadway bound. Best of Enemies, a fascinating story (which actually might make a wildly funny musical) is about two great intellectuals on the opposite sides of the political spectrum – William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal – who joined together for a series of heated debates during the turbulent 1968 presidential campaign.
This year’s opening night presentation at AFI DOCS (in the middle of a many-festival screening run that began with a Sundance Film Festival showing in January; a platform commercial release starts on July 31st) is about the battle between two polar opposites that signed on to a series of commentary discussions telecast on the ABC television network. Gordon’s fascination with the subject grew out of a museum screening five years ago of a bootleg copy of the tête-à-tête clashes. Neville, apparently chatting with Gordon after the showing, got interested because his first job was at The Nation Magazine, fact checking the essays written by Vidal. Now they offer up their dynamic view of this slice of history, using a wide variety of materials – home movies, interviews, news pundits on parade, appearances of the combatants on other tv shows, and the central televised debates – that highlight the egos at the center of this incredible storm.
The film has a nice, jaunty flow with all the proper set ups. In the summer of 1968, ABC’s news budget is constrained, to put it lightly. It’s dead last in the news ratings. Walter Cronkite had been the well-respected anchorman at CBS since 1962; Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were the popular newscasters over on NBC. ABC had the 44-year-old Frank Reynolds, freshly recruited to the network for its evening news program on May 27, 1968, starting a brief two-year stint, and newsman (and future anchor) Howard K. Smith. ABC’s executives made a bold move in the face of limited resources, and they hired ideological foes Vidal (at the time plugging Myra Breckinridge, his satirical, gender-bending 1968 novel) and Buckley for a series of live evening debates held in August during the Republican (Miami Beach) and Democratic (Chicago) conventions. As each deliberation begins, it’s number is displayed on the screen, accompanied by the ding of a prize fight bell. Not quite a blood sport, but it’s still quite a rumble.
Of course, for those, like myself, who lived through the times (I was about to start college), memories of the time are blackened by the bloody police attacks orchestrated by Mayor Richard Daley on tens of thousands Vietnam War protestors in Chicago on August 28, 1968. That’s the same date that the vitriol spewed between the patrician, acerbic, provocative Vidal and an annoyed Buckley, the Libertarian, Christian conservative television host (1,429 episodes of Firing Line) and founder of the influential National Review. Vidal let out the first barb, calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, and the flustered right-wing commentator stung back with a homophobic comment that crushed the civility of the earlier debates. It’s a damning piece of history. And a great television moment. You can watch a copy here.
Of course, the war between them didn’t end with the final debate. Buckley, Mr. Conservative Cool, sued. Yeah. It got nasty and nastier. The filmmakers provide coverage of that lawsuit and the ill-will it generated.
Sometimes when you put two people together nice things happen. Maybe not to each other, but we know that ABC was happy with its ratings back then. Today, I’d love to see John Stewart and any of the idiots from Fox News in a battlefront similar to the one that happened 55 years ago. People watched then. And Stewart will have plenty of time when he retires… Until that possible reality, catch Best of Enemies. It’s a first-class primer on how political news commentary had its true start. Long before it became something to ridicule on Comedy Central.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.