In 1968, ABC couldn’t seem to get arrested in trying to compete for news viewers with CBS and NBC. So when the time came to cover that year’s Republican and Democratic Presidential conventions, the network came up with the go-for-broke idea of bringing in arch right-wing pundit William F. Buckley Jr. against arch left-wing pundit and author Gore Vidal. Fireworks commenced even beyond the network’s wildest dreams, and it actually scored in the ratings. Oddly enough, those nasty verbal on-air encounters between two people who clearly hated each other became an inadvertent blueprint for what I call Shout TV today.
Of course the news business has changed in major ways since those broadcasts nearly a half century ago, but the decorum that once defined network news was shown the door that summer when Buckley and Vidal went at each other with pure venom, almost coming to blows at one point. Somehow, Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) saw a potential documentary in all of this, and now his perfectly timed Best Of Enemies is opening just as the Presidential campaigns are getting underway. Perfect, fortuitous timing indeed.
A more appropriate title for this one, as I say in my video review (click on the link above), might be 2o Feet From Killing Each Other. Neville and his co-writer, producer and director Robert Gordon, got extraordinary access to everything and everyone related to those historic broadcasts and it makes a pretty fascinating documentary as what we see then really does seem to presage the kind of no-holds-barred screaming matches that characterize so many news programs today. Although it is somewhat slow to start, this slugfest really gets going in its second half and is quite entertaining to watch. Both men are so supremely intelligent it almost seems too good for the ABC of that era, which inspired jokes like “the reason nobody could find Patty Hearst is because she was hiding out on ABC Friday nights.” Neville and Gordon have included interesting and insightful interviews from people like Dick Cavett and Buckley’s brother who were around then and have lived to tell the tale. Good stuff.
Magnolia releases the film Friday in select engagements. Do you plan to see Best Of Enemies? Let us know what you think.