Never the twain shall meet… but they did, and ‘Best of Enemies’ goes behind the scenes to tell the tale.
In 1968, the US ABC Network was struggling for ratings in their coverage of the political conventions. So someone came up with the bright idea of putting conservative pundit William Buckley Jr in the room, to debate with someone on live television each night. Was there anyone he would refuse to sit down with, they asked? Gore Vidal, he said. So guess who they got?
The result is an exercise in intellectual conflict, with conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal both operating at the height of their powers, their levels of articulacy and knowledge matched only by their mutual contempt for each other. “Each thought the other was quite dangerous,” said Christopher Hitchens, “There’s nothing fake. They really do despise one another.”
For the filmmakers Morgan Neville (‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’) and Robert Gordon, this was a chance to provide an intimate look at a great conflict between two opposing ideologies, to explore the dawn of television punditry, and cast a light on these two men, so evenly matched in their completely opposing attitudes.
For co-director Robert Gordon, making the film was not about choosing sides.
“We knew going in that this was not about saying this one’s right, that one’s wrong,” he said at this year's Sheffield Documentary Festival, where the film was screened to an ecstatic reaction.
“And so we worked very hard not to inject our own politics into it. People bring their own prejudices to the film - if they want it to go a certain way, they can see it going that way. If they want it to be a balanced thing, they can see that.”
What the film is, is a poignant testament to what television debate used to be, but no longer is.
“America is a really fucked place right now, and I would like two things to happen,” said Robert Gordon vehemently. “At least one thing they’re (Buckley and Vidal) doing here is sitting down across from each other and talking. Now, you have Fox News, which sets up a strawman and brings him down. And MSNBC do the same thing. They’re not talking to each other. I want dialogue to come back.
And the other thing…
“Buckley and Vidal were given 15 minutes uninterrupted, on national television, for ten nights," says Robert Gordon. "Where are the TV execs who will allow that to happen and how I can help them? I want TV to trust its audience.”
'Best of Enemies' is in UK cinema from 24 July.