True/False Film Fest: Morgan Neville on Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley in Doc ‘Best of Enemies’

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal during one of their famous 1968 debates on ABC.
William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal during one of their famous 1968 debates on ABC.

The first documentary I saw at the True/False Film Festival last week in Columbia, Missouri was “Best of Enemies,” a chronicle of the contentious relationship between staunch liberal Gore Vidal and staunch conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. The film includes a lot of footage of their famous debates that aired on ABC-TV in 1968, as well as interviews with a number of people, including Dick Cavett and Christopher Hitchens.

In 1968, CBS and NBC dominated the news game, so ABC took the risk of creating the debates as a way of getting into that game. If it weren’t for those debates, which garnered better ratings than anyone expected, political discourse might be very different today. Point/counterpoint types of shows (including the catch phrase, “Jane, you ignorant slut”) might never have made it onto the airwaves. The filmmakers seem to contend that these debates were the end of objective journalism as we knew it.

Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville

I was struck by the fact that it would be difficult to get today’s audiences to watch such an intelligent debate, as we have developed such a disdain for intellectuals, and Vidal and Buckley were nothing if not intellectuals.

The hatred that each man had for the other remained until their dying days. In a famous moment in one of their debates, which is shown in the film, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” to which Buckley responded by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to sock him in the face. The event was so upsetting to the two of them that afterward, they each published lengthy essays back and forth expounding on the incident.

There are a number of hilarious moments throughout, but the film also shows a period in history that is both timely and well worth contemplating. Directed by Robert Gordon and Oscar winner Morgan Neville, the film was followed by a Q&A with Morgan. Below are some of the highlights:

On why the directors wanted to make the film:

The joke was always, “Oh, we’re raising money for the film about the two rich white guys” – the last thing anybody ever normally would want to film. The comment we got over and over as we were trying to make the film was, “Does anybody care? Is this relevant?” And the comment I’ve been getting ever since we finished the film is, “I can’t believe how relevant this is….”

To me, it’s so relevant. This is an issue I care so much about…. This is not about the argument. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s about how we argue. And to me, those are the kinds of issues about civil and uncivil discourse that I care about.

Robert Gordon
Robert Gordon

I’m still a big believer in the power of discourse. I feel like television and the camera kind of draws the worst out of people. In this case, you have two people who were incredible intellectuals, who were incredibly smart, who both had an incredibly esteemed career … but for whom their hatred for the other … kind of brought out the worst in who they were.

On the difficulty of having this kind of political discourse in today’s world:

Now, Google knows what your personality is and what your political persuasion is. It gives you truth based on what it thinks you want to hear. So, we end up in this situation where, although it’s maybe more democratic in the sense that more people get a voice, we listen to each other less and less.

On the people they interviewed for the film (George Will, incidentally, said no):

When we did those interviews, they were so inspiring. They were incredible. They just had a ton of stuff to say. They were making all of the connections that we hoped were there and we felt were there….

On Morgan’s past relationship with Gore Vidal:

My first job out of college was to work as Gore Vidal’s fact checker, which was positively the worst job I ever had. It was before the Internet, so I’d call him on the phone in Ravello, Italy and tell him he’d gotten a small fact slightly wrong. Then, I’d hold the phone out from my ear as he chewed me out and told me I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about it.

But it’s interesting because Gore is somebody who, intellectually, I’ve always had a lot of respect for, but he was a very complicated character and somebody who was just a media junkie.

On interviewing Gore in 2010 for the film, just two years before his death:

We go to his house in the Hollywood Hills…. They brought him in the room in a wheelchair. He was in chronic pain at that point with a bad back. And somebody in our crew had said, as a way of kind of breaking bread with him or warming him up, “Oh, I know you served in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. My grandfather served in the Aleutian Islands. He said that he never got warm the entire time he was there.” At that moment, Gore looked up for the first time and kind of had lightning bolts coming out of his eyes, and said, “I had my rage to keep me warm!”

Then, we spent the next three hours in the most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever had…. He just hated Buckley, and he just couldn’t imagine that anybody would ever try and have an even-handed opinion about him. So, it was just attack, attack.

So, he left at the end of the interview, and as we were packing up, his servant came in and said, “Would you like to come up for cocktails with Mr. Vidal?” We said, “Of course….”

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal on the set of their 1968 debates for ABC
William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal on the set of their 1968 debates for ABC

He leads us upstairs. We think we’re going to go into a sitting room. Instead, he leads us into Gore’s bedroom. Gore’s back in bed, and Gore says, “Sit down.” We look around the room, and there are no chairs in the room. So, we all sit down on Gore’s bed, and the servant brings in a tray with Scotch and bourbon.

And we all had cocktails for another three hours and actually had a very interesting conversation. Well, we were more talking with each other. He was kind of listening and starting to understand what we were trying to get at. But still, he was [too] blinded by his hatred of Buckley to get into any kind of sensible way of talking about it.

On getting permission to use the footage from ABC-TV:

We were nervous because ABC doesn’t come off that great [in the film]…. When we finally showed them the film and said, “Here’s all the footage we want,” the guy who was licensing the footage to us, I think, was crapping his pants. He was very, very nervous he was going to lose his job.

And they showed it to the head of ABC News who we had been talking to for a number of years at that point, and she wrote a note back and said, “I respect this film. This film is about trying to tell the truth. We are a news organization, and we don’t believe in censorship. You can use everything.”


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