The Best of Enemies is an intriguing if de rigeur documentary about the TV debates between two intellectuals at the time of the 1968 conventions in the USA, the first in Miami, the second, notoriously, in Chicago. The two men, Gore Vidal and William Buckley share a deep loathing for one another, something which gives the film its strongest suit. There’s no shortage of conflict. The narrative takes us through the sequence of the debates. The simmering antipathy finally boils over when Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi and he responds by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to smash his face in. It’s a moment of highly theatrical television which broke the civilised etiquette of the time and established the potency of the debate format which is still pervasive in media coverage of politics.
However, having said all of this, and without denying that the film does what it sets out to do efficiently and at times amusingly, it feels as though The Best of Enemies fails to draw out some of the subtler aspects of its narrative. It briefly comments on the way in which the two men’s upbringing was very similar, but, watching them today, what strikes you is not the ideological divide that existed between them, but everything they had in common. Both patrician servants of a social and political structure which now seems incredibly outdated. This is another America, one which was already in the process of being reconstructed from within. The events of the Democrat Chicago convention could clearly have made a film in their own right. (The doc uses footage from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, one of the great pioneering doc-dramas). Perhaps its unfair to chastise a film for suggesting another even more interesting film which lurks within its digital rushes, but in comparison to Hunter S Thompson’s incendiary journalism from this period of US history, for example, it can’t help but feel slightly prosaic, as though honing in on two people having an argument about what to have for supper, without realising the restaurant they’re sitting in is on the point of burning down.