SOMETIMES YOU'LL BE WATCHING a terrible garbage TV show, like maybe the entire show is just a monkey barfing into a diaper, and the person sitting next to you will say something like, "There used to be eloquent discourse on television." And you'll be like, "Yeah, totally," but you'll both keep watching Ultimate Monkey Barf Challenge, because what did that monkey even eat? Best of Enemies is that sentiment, molded into a feature-length documentary. It's not a film that I'd describe as actively pretentious, so much as wistful for something it can't quite define.
In 1968, ABC News, in conjunction with the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions, conducted a series of 10 nightly debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. Buckley, founder of the National Review 13 years earlier, was a conservative media kingmaker. Vidal's star has faded now, but at the time he was a cultural powerhouse of leftist identity politics and sexually adventurous historical fiction. And over the course of their debates, they hammered the shit out of each other on prime-time national TV. Or got as close to hammering the shit out of each other as two effete, mid-Atlantic-accented white guys could on the subject of political policy in America. Imagine how much Adderall you'd have to take to watch 10 hours of that now.
Best of Enemies is an immensely sturdy documentary, benefiting from a wealth of B-roll footage, strong visual framing, and a pair of the smartest-sounding celebrity readers in the business (John Lithgow reads sections of Vidal's biography, Kelsey Grammer from Buckley's). What it lacks is the conviction that Vidal and Buckley—towering intellects and all—were any less catty than someone you'd see on The O'Reilly Factor today. I'll grant you that people talked in longer sentences back then, but that didn't mean they threw less shade.