In 1968 a rating starved ABC network, looking for a bit of sensationalism, decided to air a series of televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal. It was a desperate attempt to chisel away viewers from stronghold that the likes of NBC and CBS held. Little did the producers know that the candle wick they were about to ignite was actually a stick of dynamite whose explosive reverberations would still be felt 47 years later. In their fascinating documentary, Best of Enemies, directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon capture how the heated debates not only mesmerized a nation, but changed the course of television forever.
In an age where diverging views are a finger swipe away, and political punditry has become a televised rhetorical sport unto itself, it is easy to forget that life was not always like this. Neville and Gordon’s captivating, and downright entertaining, film shines a light on a time when television was the focal point for informing the nation about important events. Since ABC did not have a star journalist that commanded attention, like Walter Cronkite did for CBS, they resorted to intellectual stunt casting by enlisting Buckley and Vidal to engage in a discourse about the Democratic and Republican conventions. As ABC was unable to afford wall-to-wall convention coverage, the 90-minute segments with the pair was a bold step away from the traditional televised coverage that viewers had come to expect.
Bringing highbrow ideology to the average American audience, Buckley and Vidal were an instant hit. Unlike the pundits who pollute the cable television today with their faux angry bluster – when audiences know full well that they will be sharing a coffee and bagels at the craft services table once the segment is over – Buckley and Vidal genuinely detested each other. As if boxers in a televised ring, their verbal punches became increasingly personal and emotionally cut deep. They were the embodiment of the vastly different political views and lifestyles that were dividing America at the time. Buckley was viewed as a revolutionary right wing Christian who championed ideals that Vidal, and openly gay man who fought for the dismantling of both sexual and racial labels, saw as detrimental to America’s evolution.
Neville and Gordon achieve something quiet spectacular with Best of Enemies. They make a film that examines the exploitative nature of media, while never succumbing to exploiting their subjects themselves. Providing rich insight into both men, the film portrays Buckley and Vidal as individuals who were keenly aware of the power that television possessed. Neville and Gordon present a world that is vastly different to the one where the style of punditry that Buckley and Vidal gave birth to now exists. It was a time when intellectuals were the real celebrities and carried a real desire to evoke social change through their words.
Best of Enemies is an engaging reflection on a crucial time that changed the media landscape. In an era where arguments bring big ratings, but nothing of substance is actually said, the film is a timely eulogy to the death of intellectual discourse. One can only imagine what Buckley and Vidal would have to say about that.
Friday, April 24, 7:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, April 26, 3:15 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.