Academy Screenings: Morgan Neville on his Buckley-Vidal doc ‘Best of Enemies’ |

Academy Screenings: Morgan Neville on his Buckley-Vidal doc ‘Best of Enemies’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"Best of Enemies," a documentary about the televised 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, plays Wednesday at Academy Screenings.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Best of Enemies’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Wednesday, Dec. 30, 3 p.m.

How much: $20/GA; $15 Aspen Film members; Free/AMPAS, BFTA, guild members

Tickets: Harris Concert Hall and Wheeler Opera House box offices;

ABC News made a long-shot gamble in 1968 in an effort to boost ratings and save money. Instead of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, the network decided to televise a series of 10 debates between two of the era’s leading public intellectuals — the conservative National Review editor William F. Buckley and liberal writer Gore Vidal. The subsequent debates, amid the riots and tumult of the conventions in Miami and Chicago, became a national sensation.

Their success, the documentary “Best of Enemies” argues, begot our current era of cable news shout-fests.

“They would not think of themselves as the proud fathers of modern TV punditry,” said co-director Morgan Neville, whose film plays today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. “Nor would they deserve much blame for it. I think TV media took the lesson away from these debates that it was the fireworks that mattered.”

A single moment, the film suggests, helped turn the tide of our public discourse: Arguing over police tactics against demonstrators in Chicago, Gore baits Buckley by calling him a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responds with a gay slur and threat of violence. The ratings helped ABC News, in 1968, become the first television news division to turn a profit.

With the debates as its narrative center and that one much-scrutinized moment as its climax, the film also serves as a dual biography of two remarkable and remarkably similar men. They were like mirror images of each other: Both were born in fall 1925 to privileged families, went to prep schools, spoke with the same aristocratic Atlantic accent, become acclaimed men of letters as young men and both ran unsuccessfully for office in New York in the 1960s. Both had huge intellects and egos to match.

Their hatred for each other was real, as the film makes evident. In addition to what’s on screen, Neville said, he interviewed Vidal before his 2012 death but didn’t use any of the footage because Vidal preposterously disagreed with the premise that he and Buckley were at all comparable. Buckley’s son, novelist Christopher Buckley, declined to appear in the film out of respect for his dad, who had asked Vidal’s name never be uttered in their household.

Heated as they were, the 1968 showdowns were serious debates about political issues between two articulate, erudite men. There’s nothing like them on television today.

“As someone who cares about having a healthy culture, it feels like this film speaks volumes about how far we’ve fallen as a country in terms of our civil discourse,” Neville said.

After a preview screening of “Best of Enemies” at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, Sam Tanenhaus, Buckley’s biographer, who is featured in the film, compared the heated political environment in the U.S. as the 2016 presidential election approaches to that of 1968. But, he argued, no such nuanced and long-form debate could today become the cultural phenomenon it was then.

“There was this idea that they would illuminate politics in some way, that you could put them on television and it would generate interest,” Tanenhaus said. “I’m not sure that now you could take comparable figures to them — people that have the same position in the culture — and put them on television in this way, have them go back and forth as much as they did, and attract the same audience.”

The story found Neville, who won a Best Documentary Oscar for his 2013 movie “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” six years ago when he got a phone call from Robert Gordon. Gordon, who would become his co-director on “Best of Enemies,” had found a bootleg video of some of the ’68 debates and invited Neville to come over and watch.

“I think it took me about 10 minutes to realize that there was a documentary here that I wanted to make,” he said. “It was instantaneous, deciding to do it.”

Next up for Neville is a doc on Yo-Yo Ma titled “The Music of Strangers,” due out next summer.