1968. Student radicals burned their own campuses in the name of freedom; angry Americans torched their own neighborhoods for more of the same. America’s wise men sent hundreds of thousands of teenagers into a jungle with no clear goal or commitment to victory. Back at home, Martin Luther King was dead. So was Bobby Kennedy. And on the TV, a third-rate joke of a network called ABC made television history by stringing together a tiny budget to have William F. Buckley debate Gore Vidal live on the air.
The network was a mess: Cancelled shows, terrible ratings, B-team anchors, collapsing news sets. The brass couldn’t afford wall-to-wall coverage, just a summary a night with a debate to go along.
The two men were icons: Buckley, the architect of political conservatism and a master of letters; Gore, a brilliant author determined to tear down every barrier ever guarded by the prudes, the right and the church. They truly, deeply hated each other, and it showed.
Fiery, vicious and personal, their wits weaponized, the men knew that before them was a rare chance to strike a deadly blow on a real-life nemesis. Smart, fast and eloquent, they exchanged fire with no filter on live broadcast night after night. And the wounds inflicted during their two weeks of televised war haunted both men for the rest of their beautiful, tragic, great lives.
Like the ’60s themselves, their victories and tragedies were played out on sets across the country, recorded forever and seared in our memory. Because of this great record, in “Best of Enemies” directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon are able to capture this moment in their lives — and in the life of the country — bringing the drama of the decade, the furor of the debates, and the deep scars left behind to the screen in a film in fast-paced and brilliant fashion.
The way the film captures these two towering personalities and the times they defined, and draws them into our own world nearly 50 years later, is masterful, and makes Magnolia Pictures’ “Best of Enemies” a documentary that will be enjoyed by historian and casual passerby alike.
“Best of Enemies” opens in select theaters July 31. Watch it.