In 1968, as the summer political-convention season approached, ABC News decided to take a gamble. The network seemed permanently stuck in third place, and its news division in particular suffered from the lack of a brand-name on-air authority figure to compete with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC or Walter Cronkite at CBS. Back in those days, the two leading networks covered the conventions live from beginning to end. (Can you imagine?) Instead of comprehensiveness, ABC went for provocation and at least the illusion of intellectual heft, hiring Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. to conduct a series of debates during the Republican circus in Miami and the subsequent Democratic debacle in Chicago. “Best of Enemies,” Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s lively new documentary, an accessible assemblage of archival footage and talking-head analysis, mines the Buckley-Vidal skirmishes for nuggets of historical insight.
And also — not quite the same thing — for zingers and gotchas and other flashes of that mysterious, you-know-it-when-you-see-it phenomenon called “great television.” The most memorable such moment occurred late in the battle, as the Chicago Police Department rampaged in Grant Park. What looked like law and order to Mayor Richard J. Daley and like “Gestapo tactics” to Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut set off a series of especially nasty personal volleys between ABC’s designated intellectuals. Vidal needled Buckley, calling him a “crypto-Nazi” until Buckley lost his patrician cool and snapped back: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Ratings gold.
The filmmakers build to this moment as if it were D-Day or the Rumble in the Jungle, excavating a biographical Before and adumbrating a news media After. The smeary, hot hues of old video — the ’68 conventions were the first to be broadcast in color — add both immediacy and distance. Some protocols and artifacts of network television look quaint: the antenna-bedecked headsets of correspondents on the floor; the scripted prose of their reports. And the two antagonists, with their upper-crust accents and their compulsive displays of erudition, are not the kind of guys you see much on the tube these days, or anywhere else for that matter.
Buckley and Vidal were remarkable characters, at once bona fide intellectuals, true-blue aristocrats and knowing caricatures of those very types. Each one had, earlier in the decade, run a losing campaign for elective office in New York State: Vidal earnestly sought a congressional seat in the Hudson Valley in 1960; Buckley staged a lively protest candidacy in the New York City mayoral election of 1965. They were scions of powerful, privileged families, prep school graduates (Vidal never went to college), military veterans and tirelessly entrepreneurial men of letters happy to dabble in mass media when it suited their needs. They also genuinely and sincerely hated each other’s guts.
This antipathy was only partly a political matter. Buckley, founder and editor of National Review, host of “Firing Line” and a champion of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was a leading strategist and theoretician of the rising right. Vidal, while temperamentally not a joiner or a leader of movements, was at the time stationed at the respectable left wing of American liberalism, a critic of the nation’s foreign policy and an evangelist for cultural and sexual freedom. His best-selling novel “Myra Breckinridge,” a blithe and naughty satire of modern hypocrisy with a gender-fluid heroine (played on screen by Raquel Welch), can be said to represent nearly everything Buckley loathed and feared about the ’60s.
“Best of Enemies” provides adequate biographical portraits of both men, although capturing the full range of their complexities, in particular as literary figures, lies beyond its modest, compact scope. It’s too bad that both Buckley and Vidal died before this film was made — not that they would have necessarily participated — but Mr. Neville and Mr. Gordon make up for this absence by using Kelsey Grammer to read Buckley’s words about Vidal and John Lithgow to read Vidal’s reflections on Buckley.
This is brilliant casting, and the journalists, biographers, colleagues and kin invited on camera to fill out the story have been judiciously chosen. A few are current or former employees of The New York Times, including Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor of The Times Book Review and Buckley’s authorized biographer.
Mr. Tanenhaus and others work hard to invest the ABC debates with significance, not always successfully. Part of the occult power of television lies in its ability to collapse the distance between the trivial and the consequential. Vidal and Buckley were authentically important and interesting writers and thinkers, but sitting under the lights they were, above all, celebrities, signifiers of their own distorted individuality. The film provides little evidence that over the course of the 10 debates they said anything of real substance, even as the fabric of the Republic was unraveling and being rewoven before their eyes. To understand their thoughts on what was unfolding around them, you will have to consult their writings. Meanwhile, the spectacle of what Mr. Tanenhaus calls “intellectual debate as blood sport” provides a visceral, slightly vulgar thrill.
Is this chronicle of their combat an occasion for nostalgia or a cautionary tale? The film’s perfectly sensible, not entirely satisfying answer is “both.” The Buckley-Vidal dust-ups are seen as a pinnacle of high-mindedness from which we have long since descended, and also as the beginning of a slide from civility into endless belligerence.
There’s no doubt that the debates were a harbinger of cable-news shouting matches to come, as television journalism transformed itself from democracy’s buttoned-up superego into its snarling id. The arguments about sex, war, race and culture have hardly quieted since 1968. Buckley and Vidal may rest in peace, but the rest of us have stayed plastered.
“Best of Enemies” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Riots, war, sexual revolution and a threatened punch in the face.
Correction: July 31, 2015
An earlier version of this review misidentified the state Abraham A. Ribicoff represented as a senator. It is Connecticut, not New York.