Fight of the Century

Best of Enemies climbs back in the ring with Buckley and Vidal for their 1968 face-off

William F. Buckley (l) and Gore Vidal

The biggest heavyweight bout onscreen in 2015 won't be on pay-per-view, and it won't even involve prizefighters. It's in the documentary Best of Enemies, which focuses on a pair of intellectual pugilists, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, when they were hired by ABC to spice up its coverage of the 1968 political conventions. Given 15 minutes daily to engage in largely unmediated debate on topical matters, the notoriously contentious pundits challenged each other's political positions, hurled highbrow digs, and came dangerously close to throwing punches. The Buckley-Vidal face-offs provided spectacularly compelling television, laying the groundwork for 60 Minutes' "Point/Counterpoint" segment, the Dan Aykroyd/Jane Curtin Saturday Night Live parody, and pretty much every news commentary program televised today.

When Best of Enemies screened at SXSW 2015, the Chronicle asked author/filmmaker Robert Gordon why he and co-director Morgan Neville, acclaimed for their docs about music (Johnny Cash's America, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied), took this turn to politics.

Robert Gordon: I saw a bootleg DVD of the debates and immediately recognized a great story in it. I think the similarity this has with the [music documentaries] is, one, my love of larger-than-life characters, and two, the opportunity to tell a bigger story through smaller events. Here, I saw the roots of the present culture wars, and I loved the metaphor of one man on the left, one man on the right, and the bell, you know, "Go!"

Austin Chronicle: It's like Ali and Frazier.

RG: It is! I knew right at the beginning that this was going to be rich with metaphor and possibility. These two guys losing their cool on the set in Chicago was a metaphor for what was going on outside on the street.

AC: People look at 1968 as a hinge point in American history, but they tend to concentrate on the assassinations, and even when they deal with the conventions, the protests and riots take focus. But you zeroed in on these men who were so alike yet such opposites – whose comment was it that the two are like matter and antimatter?

RG: Well, I'll tell you this: In the early years, this project was defined by what it wasn't more than what it was. As we were doing the research and learning things and beginning to edit, we'd say, "Wait a minute! This is not about the conflict in Chicago." Back down the road. We'd go forward. "No, it's not about Nixon." Back down the road. We were determined not to remake something that had been made, and we knew there was wealth in these two guys. But like you said, it's a major year with all these activities, and we were constantly sidetracked and would have to back down the road and say, "Very interesting. Plays great on the screen. Throw it out."

AC: Do you feel a Vidal and Buckley today could have a voice on the national scene the way they did in the Sixties?

RG: TV has changed, right? There's no incubator anymore for public intellectuals. I mean, these guys were given 15 minutes, uninterrupted, and not told they have to keep it sexy, you know? They were told, "Dig into the issues." And their animosity and enmity and distrust of each other kept pulling the high-minded guys onto the low road. But they would always get back on the issues of the convention or the day. I don't think television allows that anymore. You've got that thing in your ear and the producer saying, "We're losing points. Change the topic, change the topic!"

AC: Best of all possible worlds, what do you hope this film can do?

RG: One, that [it reminds] people that these vitriolic fights we're having today are not new. They have roots that go back decades, and the issues are a little more complicated than we allow them to be today. Two, that it makes people aware that two people in extended dialogue with intellectual thoughts [on television] is not necessarily boring. Dialogue is the answer, right? If it's war or dialogue, dialogue is the long-term answer, and I hope this will bring that back and let TV networks know that audiences can be trusted to be engaged by longer, uninterrupted, deeper thoughts.

Best of Enemies opens Friday, Aug. 21. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.

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Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley

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