5 Questions With Best of Enemies Director Robert Gordon
Best of Enemies is a documentary celebrating the fabulous enmity and erudite verbal brawling between liberal author Gore Vidal, and his arch-nemesis, conservative scholar and writer William F. Buckley Jr., on a series of ABC news specials during the 1968 political conventions. Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) came across the unedited footage back in 2012 and knew instantly they wanted to make a movie out of it.
Dead last in news ratings at the time, ABC figured it had little to lose squaring off the two combatants; but no one had any idea just how riveting and withering their repartee would become. The series of specials, broadcast after the day’s coverage of both the DNC and RNC, became notorious not just for the obvious, jarring antipathy the men held for one another, but also for the surgical precision with which they jousted.
We caught up with Gordon to chat about making the film, which is showing now at Ritz 5.
Did you go in to the film with a bias one way or the other?
Morgan [Neville] and I have a really good simpatico. We knew this wasn’t about taking sides. I lean left, he leans right, but neither of us wanted to go in to this and make a fool out of Buckley, or praise Vidal. This was not about the arguments, but about how we argue. We knew it would have much more meaning if it had balance. Then what we found out in the research was how balanced it really was. The more we got into it, the more we realized how similar these guys really were. Even the fact that Bill loses the debate wasn’t the point. It was just interesting to see how it affected them after.
One of the things that makes it such compelling theater is neither man is used to not having his way with an opponent. Were they both supremely confident?
Yeah, I think it’s the attraction of opposites. They’re so similar but at some point they veer into polar opposites, where one makes a right and one makes a left. All the similarities are there but the poles have switched. The stakes were the nation: The feeling that everything is at play here because they’re each the Superman who’s going to save the country from that evil guy across from them.
I was under the impression these debates were more Buckley’s territory, he seemed more seasoned of a TV personality, is that true?
By ’68, he’d done 2 to 3 years of Firing Line, so he knew how to do the one-on-one back and forth. He was a Yale Debate Team star, so this was his milieu for sure. But as Sam Tannenhouse says “Gore was a great talker.” And that’s why it’s so interesting: These guys were masters of something very similar, sort of like a mixed martial arts battle of words.
The film is both a fascinating time capsule and weirdly relevant to contemporary society: Was that the point?
I think that’s inherent in the debates themselves, and really Buckley and Vidal embodying the ideas they embodied. When I saw the debates in 2010 that’s what it looked like to me: I couldn’t believe how contemporary it was, as if you could just replace certain nouns—replace “Viet Nam” with “Iraq” or “Afghanistan”—and everything just fit like it was happening in real-time today. I realize now that’s because it was the beginning of identity politics. These guys having this fight about who each other was, is the way we fight now. It’s the roots of that. Previous pundit dialogue had been buttoned-up men having buttoned-up conversations with no passion whatsoever. They weren’t invested. They didn’t feel like the nation was at stake.
These dudes were proto-pundits, who felt what they were saying. As opposed to the industry today, which features a gaggle of people who are paid specifically to stir things up and say outrageous things they may or may not actually believe.
The other difference is people don’t want to get taken off the Rolodex. People make their living being pundits. Buckley and Vidal, this was a side affair. People making a living don’t want to say something and not get called back. So, consequently, what it boils down to is most of these people are saying basic talking points. If someone called someone a “queer” today [as Buckley does in the film] it wouldn’t have the same effect; however, then the vitriol was so evident. You don’t see that anymore. It’s all very much Roman candles now, not raging forest fires.
Piers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly. Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.