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'Best of Enemies' (R)

One of the bigger surprises in Best of Enemies, the lively documentary about William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal’s debates-turned-death-matches during ABC News’ coverage of the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions, is that the network promoted the two pundits as intellectuals. All brains, no brawn.

Can you imagine news shows today trumpeting their guest commentators as erudite eggheads? Back in 1968, though, third-place ABC was looking for a way to end-around Walter Cronkite and his CBS posse, as well as around Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and their NBC boys. Why not enlist Buckley, who, as editor of the National Review, had “put conservatism on the march,” to duke it out, verbally, with Vidal, the lefty author of hugely popular historical novels and the transgender satire Myra Breckinridge? Howard K. Smith, ABC’s veteran newsman, would moderate, and insights – and insults –would fly.

Like rounds in a boxing match, co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us through the highlights, and jaw-dropping lowlights, of the 10 televised Buckley-Gore debates. First, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan vie for the nomination at the RNC in Miami, and Buckley and Vidal look on and trade barbs. A few weeks later, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy woo delegates in Chicago, while outside the convention hall, police are captured on camera pummeling antiwar protesters. Vidal, a witness to the teargassing and billy-clubbings, expresses his dismay, disillusionment, disgust. Buckley describes the violence as isolated and incidental, condemning the radicals for wielding Viet Cong flags and provoking the cops.

Then, Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” And Buckley, fuming, calls Vidal a “queer,” threatening to punch him in the face.

Best of Enemies offers a bracing view of a pivotal time in our recent history, as Vietnam and race riots scarred a nation’s soul, and as the Establishment and the Counter Culture exchanged epithets and blows. Buckley and Vidal mirrored the fight in their equally pompous, albeit polar-opposite, political slugfests.

For context, the filmmakers have Vanity Fair byliners James Wolcott and the late Christopher Hitchens rooting on from Vidal’s corner, while Buckley’s personal assistant, Linda Bridges, and Buckley’s brother, Reid, provide cover for their man. Kelsey Grammer reads a few passages as, and from, Buckley, while John Lithgow voice-overs Vidal’s trenchant musings.

An aside, but maybe it’s time for a documentary about Hugh Hefner’s cocktail-hour chat show, Playboy After Dark, which debuted the same week Nixon was sworn in as president. In the extraordinary Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, there’s a clip of Nina Simone performing for Hef, his bunnies, and his guests on the show. In Best of Enemies, Vidal is invited to the Playboy publisher’s televised soiree. Sherry Lansing, a struggling actress back then and the first woman to head a motion picture studio a few decades later, is close by Hef’s side. Vidal, with Buckley nowhere in sight, happily signs copies of his book.

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 87 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.