You might see a film about William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten televised debates during the 1968 presidential conventions as an opportunity to bask in eloquent, pointed repartee. You might also enjoy the spectacle of two of the foremost intellectuals of their time coming very close to physically beating the crap out of each other. You might not expect, however, to find yourself weeping — for the state of the republic and the poisoned media landscape, for the decay of the American social contract. Yet here we are. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s masterful Best of Enemies leaves you with an overwhelming sense of despair. It’s not just a great documentary, it’s a vital one.
The setup is simple, and beautiful — so simple and beautiful that I’m shocked nobody’s tried to make this movie until now. In 1968, the struggling ABC network, dead last behind CBS and NBC (“They’d be fourth, but there were only three,” quips one talking head), didn’t have the resources for the kind of convention coverage that their competitors did. So ABC decided to let the flamboyant, unapologetic Vidal and Buckley — one a dapper left-wing bomb-thrower, the other the very backbone of arch-conservatism — debate the issues of the day. Point-counterpoint. A novel idea at the time for television news.
The film began a limited run on Friday.