IN THEATERS (SF) – “Best of Enemies”

indexBest of Enemies (2015; Dir.: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville)

GRADE: B-

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 a completely meaningless evaluation, it’s a red flag of self-inflation: if you need to bring on a stacked deck of enthusiasts in order to testify to your subject’s importance, then I tend to think thou doth testify too much. Great documentaries are alive with a sense of discovery, both on the part of the filmmaker and the audience; 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, but the “expert” interviewees mostly speak in insipid generalities. National Review was “the most important” this or that, Vidal was “the most important” who’s-it, and 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, and culminated with Buckley calling the closeted Vidal a “queer” on the air. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville show how Vidal and Buckley were basically opposite sides of the same coin – mercurial intellectuals, frustrated politicians, and self-made men who behaved like old-money elites.  But Gordon and Neville also commit some unforgivably annoying sins, like 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.”