In the tumultuous summer of 1968, tens of millions of Americans learned about the ongoing riots and polarizing presidential election season through the evening news on one of just three television networks. CBS and NBC got the lion’s share of viewers with star anchormen Walter Cronkite and the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, respectively, while ABC’s ratings position was a very distant third. In an act of desperation to compete for viewers during the presidential conventions, that network decided to give two intellectuals 15 minutes of uninterrupted air time to argue about their ideological differences.
The debates between National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. on the right and novelist Gore Vidal on the left were certainly upmarket TV, but they were also intense battles between two highly intelligent men who truly despised one another. The result was a major ratings sweep for ABC and, according to the documentary Best of Enemies, co-directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the beginning of a seismic shift in television news from objective reporting to ideological debate—although today, Gordon notes, the discussions are far more about shouting heads than about the kind of serious arguments with which Buckley and Vidal had captivated the nation.
Gordon was too young to have registered the significance of the debates when they occurred, but roughly five years ago a friend showed him some of the footage from those broadcasts, and although his primary filmmaking interest has been the music industry, he felt there might be a wonderful film to be made about the debates. “All my work has been about something that can provide a door to a bigger issue,” he explains. “These debates represent something. As soon as I saw the material, I was thinking about culture wars today and how they were being articulated 45 years ago.”
He approached the rights-holder, ABC News Video Source, and found the rights were available. The asking price was way out of the price range of an independent producer embarking on a self-financed exploration to see if there even was a potential film there. He managed to negotiate a deal whereby he could hold an option on the footage and if someone else came looking for it, he could buy it then at a preset price. He explained to them that if he did indeed make a documentary, he would need a huge amount of additional archival material of the period, which could all come from ABC. “I said, ‘If you work with me now, when I make it, you’ll be the biggest check I write.’ And that’s what happened.”
He showed the material to collaborator Morgan Neville, who saw the same potential. Enthused, but still not certain there was a feature-length documentary to be made about the subject, Gordon, Neville and consulting producer Tom Graves set up interviews with people who could offer additional perspective and observations. “Our first round of interviews was a loop through the Northeast, where we spoke to James Wolcott, Frank Rich, Dick Cavett and Christopher Hitchens,” Gordon says. “By the time we’d finished the first one with Wolcott, we knew we had a film. I could tell because he was able to read so much into these two men and the significance of their fateful encounter. By the time we finished with Hitchens, I couldn’t believe how good the film was going to be.”
Gordon and Neville’s approach to shooting documentaries has changed significantly since Johnny Cash’s America, which they produced for A&E in 2008. “Morgan and I each used to own the same camera. For a while, we each had a [Panasonic] AG-DVX100, and then we went to the [Sony] HVR-Z7U,” Gordon says. “But now, cameras change so quickly and rentals are so easy that we rent whatever our cameramen”—Memphis-based David Leonard and New Yorker Graham Willoughby—“think will work best for the shoot.”
They like to keep the crew as simple as possible. “Morgan and I always do interviews together,” Gordon says. “One of us sits behind the other so the line of sight for the subject is always the same. We explain to our subjects how we work and it’s been very effective for us.”
They took their first five interviews and some archival footage and cut together a six-minute tease. “We thought it would get funded promptly,” Gordon remembers. “It didn’t. We took it to the Hot Docs International forum and we got a lot of great response. We applied to the open call funds that [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s] ITVS [Independent Television Service] has, and it took three years—three applications—before we finally got funded.”
Once that happened, they brought in editors Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden and pieced together the feature-length piece. The documentary uses small chunks of the debates themselves interspersed with the new interviews and a great deal of ABC News footage of the era. The four worked in Apple Final Cut 7, whittling the massive amount of material they’d gathered into a tight 87 minutes. “We had an amazing cutting room floor: Noam Chomsky, William’s brother James Buckley, Agatha Dowd, Buckley’s personal assistant, columnist Robert Scheer,” Neville says. “As we were cutting, we found ourselves with too many voices and wanted to keep the number small enough that the viewer would feel an attachment to these people as the film progressed.”
Does Gordon think TV news in general has gotten any better (or worse) than when he started this project some five years ago? “I certainly don’t think it’s getting any better, but maybe one of the networks will be desperate enough to try something unusual before they fold. Maybe they’ll find some very smart people and give them time to come on and talk about things that matter and have nothing to do with the Kardashians or another hot non-topic. And it’s my naive hope that such an act of desperation might just have the same kind of result it did for ABC back in 1968.”