Buckley and Vidal were ‘Best of Enemies’
January 20, 2015
If you think vitriolic TV news punditry is a recent phenomenon, "Best of Enemies," an entry in this year’s Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary Competition, will make you think again.
The film, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (director of the Oscar-winning "Twenty Feet From Stardom"), examines a series of TV debates during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal — renowned intellectual figures of the political right and left, respectively — that changed the way the networks covered the news. The back-and-forth between the two intellectuals often devolved into biting, personal attacks.
"In a way they’re kind of mirror images of each other. Which is part of why I think they had this particular enmity between them," Neville said.
Though Buckley and Vidal were towering public figures, the debates seemed to have been somewhat forgotten, Gordon and Neville told The Park Record.
Gordon watched a friend’s "bootleg DVD" of the debates and "was blown away."
"And the thing I liked initially, was attracted to, was the idea that these guys represented the culturally opposite positions and, in a way, could be a stand-in for the culture wars we’re involved in now," he said.
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"I had a similar reaction," Neville said. "We both love politics, we both started as journalists– print journalists. And so there was something about the story right away that I think was talking about a lot of things that we both cared about. About what media’s done to our country. How the media in a way is supposed to be the voice of sanity and context and facts and it’s slowly gotten further and further from that and, you know, how did that happen? And this story just kind of opened it up that way."
The directors said one aspect of the film that surprised them was the backstory behind ABC’s creating the debates as a way of catching up in the ratings to the other TV networks.
"ABC, to their credit, they let us use this footage and tell this story," Neville said. "It was kind of a harebrained idea to bring these guys together and what’s interesting is on the one hand you’ve got these two guys who were capable of very high-minded discussion, and for the most part in their professional careers they engaged in high-minded discussion. There was just something about the toxicity of their relationship that brought out the worst of what they were capable of. And in a way, that’s kind of the tragedy of it, that if you get people who kind of know better, but in spite of themselves end up engaging in this, then what’s the hope for the rest of us?"
While the film revolves around the interplay between Buckley and Vidal, it’s also about the medium of television — "the power of the TV camera’s glare," as Gordon puts it.
"The camera pushes people to say something exciting, for better and for worse. And I think here we see a case of, perhaps, for the worse," he said. "The camera loves conflict."
"We realized that the film was making a big statement about what we cared deeply about. Which is that a lot of what we get from our media under the guise of conversation is, in fact, poison," Neville said as Gordon laughed.
If Buckley and Vidal, both now deceased, were in their intellectual primes today, would they be on TV? Neville doesn’t think so, because "the Buckleys and Vidals of today" aren’t, but Gordon disagreed.
"Because they both loved it," he said. "You know, this bad experience (the debates) did not deter them from television at all."
While Buckley and Vidal didn’t start the "culture wars" as we know them today, they gave a voice to divisions happening in the country.
"It was all happening at the same time," Neville said. "And what’s interesting is what was happening in the streets of America in 1968 and what was happening politically, you know, looking at Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the real employment of identity politics and all of that. Those things are all happening at the same time these debates were happening. And these debates were in a way just a kind of highfalutin expression of things that were happening on the streets."
"Vietnam, in a way, polarized the nation," Gordon said. "And I think our contemporary culture wars grew out of that."
"The fights we’re having today are the fights they had," he said.
Both directors will be in Utah for the duration of the festival and will be doing Q&As with audience members following each screening. It’s Gordon’s first Sundance and Neville’s third.
"For a documentary, it’s the best place to be," Neville said. "You can’t ask for a better launching pad for your film than Sundance. And last time I had a film there was the opening night film, it was "Twenty Feet From Stardom," and we sold it that night and ended up winning an Oscar. So it was a very good experience. My expectations, I’m keeping them very much in check this time because that was a pretty un-repeatable experience. But I have nothing but love for the festival."
"Best of Enemies," directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, is an entry in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. It premieres Friday, Jan. 23, at 11:45 a.m. at the Library Center Theatre. Additional screenings are Saturday, Jan. 24, at noon at The Grand Theatre, Sunday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2, Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 8:30 p.m. at Prospector Square Theatre, and Saturday, Jan. 31, at 2:30 p.m. at The MARC Theatre.
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