In the summer of 1968, ABC was dead last in the ratings, behind CBS and NBC (“They’d be fourth, but there were only three,” jokes one talking head). Looking to offset its inability to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions, the network hired two well-known intellectuals—William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal—to debate each other on live television. Their explosive interactions fascinated viewers and changed public discourse forever.
Now on Blu-ray and DVD, the documentary Best of Enemies directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon, chronicles the ten televised debates. On the right was William F. Buckley. Devoutly Catholic, he was the founder and editor of the National Review, the host of Firing Line, author of numerous books and the leading voice of American conservatism for his generation. On the left was Gore Vidal. A celebrated novelist Myra Breckenridge, Burr, Lincoln), playwright, essayist and severe critic of American foreign policy. Both skilled debaters, the two men made no effort to hide their contempt for one another. They loathed each other to the core. Though they saw the world through very different lenses, Buckley and Vidal shared an unmistakable sense of entitlement and a tremendous gift for the controversial.
While the network’s basic premise was to have the two men debate the issues with anchor Howard K. Smith acting as moderator, it was clear from that start that Buckley and Vidal wanted to tear each other apart. Each throwing jabs and uppercuts, more akin to a boxing match than a debate. Perhaps inevitably, things boiled over during the ninth debate when Chicago police attacked anti-war demonstrators. Vidal enticed Buckley by calling him a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley replied by calling him a “queer.” Vidal knew he had won that fight simply by keeping his composure. “The network nearly shat” over it, recalled Dick Cavett.
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon spent nearly five years searching archives and taping interviews with people who knew Buckley and Vidal resulting in an engrossing and informative look at the debates. The interviewees include Buckley’s brother, Reid; former talk show host Dick Cavett, who knew both men; former ABC publicist George Merlis, who participated in the 1968 debates and Sam Tanenhaus, Buckley’s authorized biographer, among others.
Actor Kelsey Grammer reads excerpts from Buckley’s writings throughout the soundtrack, doing a remarkable job reproducing his distinctive voice. Actor John Lithgow delivers excerpts from Gore Vidal’s writings. Although Lithgow sounds nothing like the late writer, he delivers the material with a flair Vidal likely would have appreciated.
Love them or hate them, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were two men who believed deeply in differing positions they held. They weren’t willing to be civil and measured for the 1968 debates just because that’s what audiences were used to up until then. In the process, they changed the news business forever.
Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and in 1080p, Best of Enemies is a mix of film types. The new interviews are shot in hi-def, the archival footage is made up of kinescopes, photos, videotape and newsreels. Much of it is in less than perfect condition and has been knitted together with color correction and digital manipulation. The filmmakers have done a solid job creating a nice flow between the archival footage and the new interviews. All and all, given the various types of materials used here, Best of Enemies looks as good as one can expect.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is front heavy. The dialogue is fixed in the center channel and is clear throughout. The right is given over to Jonathan Kirkscey’s score. Bass does pop up occasionally, but this is a dialogue heavy piece.
English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Additional Interviews (HD, 105:40) A “play all” function is included. These excerpts provide additional prospective and debate footage. Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, George Merlis, James Wolcott, Lee Edwards, Lynda Bridges, Matt Tyrnauer, Reid Buckley and Sam Tanenhaus.
- Interview with Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon (HD, 7:13) The filmmakers discuss the history of the lengthy project.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:23)