It’s hard to remember a time when television news didn’t offer segments of so-called “experts” arguing their political views ad nauseam. But that wasn’t always the case. In Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s fascinating documentary, “Best Of Enemies,” the historical beginnings of pundit television is chronicled via the 1968 Republican and Democratic Presidential conventions. The experts here are two brilliant intellectuals, conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal.
The summer of 1968 was full of civil unrest. Protests all over the country expressed discontent over issues like racial and economic inequality as well as the Vietnam War. The Presidential conventions were at the forefront of CBS and NBC newscasts. But the third network, ABC, was scraping the bottom of the ratings barrel. They were only offering 90-minutes of convention coverage a night. In fact, the documentary recounts a joke going around in ’68, that if the Vietnam War ran on ABC, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks.
At what first looked like a ridiculous stunt, turned out to be a savvy move – ABC hired William F. Buckley and the one person he publically told the network he did not want to debate, Gore Vidal. These two men were at the top of their game as they were asked to recap each night’s convention events. These recaps were not just unbiased convention talking points, but instead Buckley and Vidal’s personal views as to why or why not certain politicians and policies would be disastrous for the nation.
Buckley was a modern conservative who founded the “National Review” magazine in 1955, and later would have his own program “Firing Line” for over 30 years. Liberal democrat Vidal wrote controversial bestsellers, like “The City and the Pillar” and “Myra Breckinridge,” as well as U.S. history biographies, theatrical plays, essays and even ran for public office. He also was a step-brother to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and frequented the White House until a fight with Bobby Kennedy got him banned.
Both men were hyper-intelligent and viewed the other as a threat to the American way of life. Although well versed on American history and policies (so much more than 99% of the “experts” of today’s newscasts), these two men were not above insulting the other. Over the ten separate debates, one wondered whether the verbal sparring would turn physical.
ABC Network’s ratings skyrocketed. The intensity and violence surrounding the Democratic Convention in Chicago seemed to carry over into Buckley and Vidal’s broadcasts. It was an ugly, yet riveting time. Debates like this had never before been witnessed on live television.
Although both Buckley and Vidal certainly make for interesting viewing, the skilled filmmaking team of Neville and Gordon deserve great credit in crafting this story from a vast array of film clips, newsreels, and past and present-day interviews. (Neville’s last feature was the Academy Award-winning “Twenty Feet From Stardom;” Gordon produced and directed numerous music documentaries.) Their creative team is also an acclaimed group and includes producers Julie Goldman, Caryn Capotosto, editors Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, and composer Jonathan Kirkscey.
“Best Of Enemies” is illuminating viewing on a subject that seems to be as current today as it was nearly 50 years ago.
Filmmaker event: Director Morgan Neville will appear for a Q&A after the Friday, July 31, 7:40 p.m. show at the Landmark Theatre.
“Best Of Enemies” is 88 minutes and Rated R and opens Friday, July 31 in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theatre.