The documentary “Best of Enemies” is an engrossing and surprisingly entertaining documentary about the notorious 1968 televised clash between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal. Buckley, who was then a high-profile figure thanks to his National Review magazine and “Firing Line” television talk show, was enlisted to speak for the right wing. Vidal, a noted author, playwright and political commentator whose novel “Myra Breckinridge” was at the time a much-publicized and scandalous best-seller spoke for the left.
The late ‘60s was a time when intellectuals such as Vidal and Buckley were widely recognized celebrities and routinely invited as guests on late night talk shows hosted by the likes of Jack Paar and Dick Cavett. It’s a toss-up as to which vintage clip in this documentary is funnier: Buckley trading quips with the cast of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” Vidal hobnobbing with Hugh Hefner on “Playboy After Dark," or Buckley's melt-down at Vidal's accusation.
Buckley, who never misses an opportunity to hiss the title “Myra Breckinridge” like a cobra spitting venom, likens the anti-war protestors of the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention to bullying fascists. This prompts Vidal to reply that “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” And that is when Buckley loses it. “Now listen, you queer,” Buckley angrily snarls. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” All of this on live TV. At that point, interviewee Dick Cavett impishly says, “The network nearly shat.”
This documentary is great fun for those old enough to remember live television and the Buckley/Vidal dust-ups and for those interested in seeing how profoundly political discourse has changed since then. Kelsey Grammer serves as the off-camera “voice” of Buckley (who died in 2008), and John Lithgow does the same for Vidal (who died in 2012).