In 1968, intellectual dynamos Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley faced off against each other for a series of debates on ABC, during the live coverage of the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago. Oscar winner Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Grammy winner Robert Gordon (Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story) have created a powerful documentary time capsule in Best of Enemies, one that teaches us much about the possibilities and limits of political discourse.
Brad Schreiber: Here's the next thing. This may be something that other people have thrown out but I have to go there. What does Best of Enemies say about the lack of commentary and the lack of a true exchange of ideas in the media today?
Robert Gordon: It says, "Help!"
Morgan Neville: We didn't want the film to be preachy. We wanted the audience to get there. And I think they bring their own understanding of where we're at with it. I think, in part it's seeing there was a time when we had real intellectuals talking on TV, long form, without moderators interrupting every thirty seconds was a world that used to exist and seems like another planet at this point. It seems completely foreign at this point.
BS: You know what's peculiar to me about watching Buckley and Vidal is they shout at each other but you can hear everything they say to each other. The ideas are deep. Now, people shout at each other and you can't hear anything.
MN: And they're not saying anything.
RG: I've been saying its like a forest fire of redwoods. If the redwoods were burning, that's them (Buckley and Vidal). And what networks took away was the flame. And that it's devolved into flash paper. Not even any ash. No content, just the explosion. Really what it's become is the shouting is a punctuation for the commercials. And that the people that are shouting really are advertisements for whatever they're representing.
MN: I don't feel people today on TV speaking as pundits are very sincere. I feel like they're speaking for a think tank or a party or a lobby or somebody who's paying the bills. Or a lot of these famous commentators on TV, like a Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh or somebody, who I feel are playing characters.
RG: You just had a good line. Pull it back out.
MN: I was just saying Bill O'Reilly versus Jon Stewart. Bill O'Reilly is someone who pretends he's honest but is actually insincere and Jon Stewart is someone who pretends to be insincere but is actually honest. I don't think Bill O'Reilly -- he started at Hard Copy -- he's not a deep political thinker. He's playing a role and I feel like so many people are. But what you respond to with Vidal and Buckley is that they believe profoundly in what they're saying. To them, stakes were huge and they were personal.
RG: It was the future of the nation at stake.
BS: Yeah, I feel the way about Buckley that I do about (Christopher) Hitchens to a certain extent. Sometimes I entirely disagree with what they espouse but I love hearing the way they express themselves. And I like considering it. And sometimes they pose thoughts that create cognitive dissonance. And that's not a bad thing in an electorate... Can I do a call back on this John Lithgow thing that I overheard?
RG: I want to say it was something he had read. He had been in a play that Vidal had written that had been off Broadway in the 70s. And he encountered Vidal... Vidal was asked something about his first sexual encounter and whether it was with a man or a woman. And Vidal replied, "I was too polite to ask."
MN: Such a good line. Vidal had so many good lines.
RG: Morgan found at Harvard pages of pre-scripted insults that Vidal brought to the set of the Buckley --
MN: But just this morning, we were trying to recount some of them, because I was trying to dig back in there.
RG: Thelma --
MN: "If Thelma Todd had had a sex change operation she would have become William F. Buckley."