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FIGHTING WORDS: Interview with Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville about the searing documentary ‘Best of Enemies’

MML

It was the moment that changed television forever.

In 1968, ABC was the lowest-rating television network in the United States.

So to get viewers it was decided to bring together two of America’s leading intellectuals – conservative commentator William F Buckley, Jr and liberal author Gore Vidal – and have them provide live commentary each night about the Democrat and Republican conventions being held in quiet Miami and riotous Chicago respectively.

Everybody knew these men despised each other to the bone.

At the time TV news was considered a bastion of objectivity and level-headedness, so the idea of two well-educated, widely respected men thrashing it out live-on-air was too attractive for a network desperate for attention.

And the network – along with America – got far more than it bargained for.

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The Buckley/Vidal debates have since become famous, partly because of each man’s formidable erudition but mainly because of Buckley’s historic outburst in one of the final debates.

Prodded by Vidal who called him a ‘crypto-fascist’ – for all his intellect, Vidal was not above smearing people – Buckley took offense and momentarily lost his signature cool, calling Vidal a ‘queer’ and threatening to slug him.

That outburst, as uncharacteristic as it was of Buckley – he hosted the current affairs TV program Firing Line and edited the influential conservative magazine The National Review – is often credited with giving birth to the culture of confrontational, sensational media commentary that swamps us today.

With the documentary Best of Enemies, director Morgan Neville – with his co-director Robert Gordon, with whom he won an Oscar for their documentary 20 Feet From Stardom – was eager to spotlight this episode of television history in a way that spoke to the cacophonous media culture today.

In this interview, Neville explains why the debates were so important, both then and now, and reflects on the contrast between the nature of televised political discourse in the late-1960s and the 2010s.  

Framed by the events of the day, which included anti-Vietnam war protests in Chicago and police violence, the debates are given context, though the film makes clear that at their core was a battle of two titans who could barely stand the sight of each other, even though they occupied the same tiny stage under glaring lights and before a national TV audience.

Please enjoy.

(Best of Enemies is showing exclusively at Cinema Nova)

For the interview with Morgan Neville, please click here: 

To view a trailer for Best of Enemies, please click here:

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