By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Sequoia Twin in Mill Valley.
I generally recoil when I hear the word “important” in a documentary. Besides being an utterly meaningless evaluation, it’s a red flag of self-inflation. If you need to bring on a stacked deck of enthusiasts to testify to your subject’s importance, then I tend to think thou doth testify too much.
Great documentaries come alive with a sense of discovery, both on the part of the filmmaker and the audience. On the other hand, mediocre documentaries begin with a conclusion and then structure the film around it.
Best of Enemies, a breezy but needlessly didactic documentary about the decades-long rivalry between leftist writer Gore Vidal and right-wing scion William F. Buckley, features a cornucopia of period footage. However, the “expert” interviewees mostly speak in insipid generalities. National Review was “the most important” this or that, and Vidal was “the most important” whatever. Of course, their contentious televised face-offs during the 1968 conventions “changed television forever.”
Their ideological political debates, scheduled by third-ranked ABC News as a desperate attempt at counter-programming, quickly devolved into highly literate personal attacks. It all culminated with Buckley calling the closeted Vidal a “queer” on the air. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville show how Vidal and Buckley were opposite sides of the same coin. They were both mercurial intellectuals, frustrated politicians, and self-made men who behaved like old-money elites.
Unfortunately, Gordon and Neville also commit some unforgivably annoying sins. For example, using scenes from the bowdlerized movie version of Myra Breckenridge to convey the character of Vidal’s novel. Still, it all goes down easy enough, and in this day and age, waiting until the end credits to include the obligatory Jon Stewart clip classifies as “restraint.”