There was a time I fervently believed that there were no bad documentary subjects — only bad documentaries. That anything could make for a good narrative, that any person could make for an interesting protagonist. A lot has changed since that time of my life (my worldview has evolved, but mostly, I’ve just seen a lot more docs), and Best of Enemies throws that into harsh relief for me. I’m not going to say that it’s outside the realm of possibility to make a good film about public intellectuals. But I’m unsure that I could ever connect with a movie that takes for granted that their profession is due any respect, that their lives are worthy of study, and that their conflicts are in any way compelling.
The film chronicles the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., and is primarily centered around their ten televised debates at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1968. The good-for-TV friction between the outspokenly liberal Vidal and the staunchly conservative Buckley is posited as the germination of the seed that became the monstrous, toxic weed that is our current political media landscape, in which vile morons bray at one another across every channel. But that connection is saved ‘til the end, and not really backed up.
It would have perhaps been worthwhile to pursue such a thesis, to follow a throughline from Vidal/Buckley to O’Reilly/Hannity/Scarborough/Maher/etc. Instead, the doc mostly treats the Vidal/Buckley debates much in the style of a 30 for 30 entry, orbiting the “main event” with background on the various players and bits of the historical context around it. The talking heads even come across more as sports commentators than as historians, analyzing the effects of each “move” and new development over the course of the debates. It’s an appreciably different approach for a historical, political documentary, though it’s still merged inextricably to the standard nonfiction film template, which grates on me more every time I encounter it.
Vidal and Buckley’s numerous verbal volleys at one another are the core of the doc’s attempted entertainment value. But the two men, though diametrically opposed in their beliefs, were identically boring individuals; scions of wealth and privilege for whom overeducation and pontificating were literally part of the job description. The movie mourns the downfall of such figures in American life, treating the fact that average citizens distrusted pundits as some kind of fearsome adversity for the pair, rather than good sense. The seated duels will appeal to sedate, gentle viewers of any ideological persuasion, who can have a good, safe chuckle over the pithy bon mots and withering retorts and wry witticisms. I was unmoved. Both Vidal and Buckley are admittedly important in their own ways, but Best of Enemies’ detached, sportish depiction of their feud only explores their influence in the shallowest manner. Which, ironically, places it closer to the realm of base cable TV than it may have intended.