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film review

Beneath the on-screen rivalry between William F. Buckley Jr., left, and Gore Vidal was more rivalry – and probably mutual hate.ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

They don't make public media rivalries like they used to. Granted, the suffocating pervasion of modern media sometimes makes it seem like everybody's fighting everybody else; a hysterical royal rumble of takedowns, snarky tweets and righteous feather ruffling. There's Fox versus CNN, Gawker versus Vice, Gawker versus Reddit, Gawker versus itself, Margaret Atwood versus Doug Ford, Donald Trump versus El Chapo, Bret Easton Ellis versus the ghost of David Foster Wallace. But what these sniping back-and-forths lack are any sense of consequence, beyond their fleeting entertainment. Calling people out has become a spectator sport with no real stakes.

In Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville dig into a feud that had stakes to spare. For many, the ongoing quarrel between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. is the Rumble in the Jungle of American public intellectualism. In this corner: Vidal, a dexterous and acerbic social progressive, one of the most immensely talented American writers and thinkers of his generation. In the other: Buckley, a skillful rhetorician who was instrumental in catalyzing the modern conservative movement in the United States.

It's not just that Vidal and Buckley were both smart – and almost comically sharp-tongued – speakers, both seemingly made for the medium of televised debate. It's that they fully embodied diametrically contrasting viewpoints. When Vidal and Buckley squared off – be it in their televised commentary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention on ABC, or in the pages of one or another glossy magazine – it wasn't just two smart guys sniping at each other. They were contesting the very heart of the American Republic. Or they thought so, anyway.

Best of Enemies does a good job playing up the magnitude of the Vidal/Buckley rowing. Clips of their televised debates – including the most famous one, in which Buckley called Vidal a "queer" and threatened to punch his teeth in – are cut with readings from the two writers' respective experiences of each other. (Kelsey Grammer voices Buckley and John Lithgow voices Vidal; both are perfect choices.) What's most bracing about the film, and the rivalry itself, is there's no sense of gentlemanly congeniality. One never gets the sense that after the cameras stop rolling Buckley and Vidal shook hands, clinked brandy snifters and toasted each other saying, "Good job, old sport!" There's no whiff of even a grudging respect for one another. These guys hated each other.

Both believed that the United States was on the wrong path. Buckley felt it was teetering on the verge of immoral depravity. Vidal though the Republic was trending – like Rome before it – toward the opulence and excess of Empire. Both thought the other was as reprehensible in their politics as their personal character (Vidal once called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," where Buckley has called Vidal "an evangelist for bisexuality," among much else). It's refreshing, in a way. These men believed that they were defending real ideas, preserving the most important principles of democracy. Vidal versus Buckley wasn't just sport. It was war.

What Best of Enemies skates over, though, is how this was a clash between two well-bred, patrician, horse-riding, boat-sailing, probably cravat-owning white men who sometimes seem like two sides of the same coin. In their own ways, both Vidal and Buckley are different representations of a kind of elitism. They seemed oddly disconnected from the political realities they were observing. Even Buckley's regret at calling Vidal a "queer" seems to stem less from self-reproach at criticizing Vidal's sexuality (or perceived sexuality, anyway) than from embarrassment at letting his foe get under his skin. For all their vehement oratory and bombast, both seemed wholly dispassionate.

But then, this remove has long been the hallmark of the endangered species that is the public intellectual. Detachment, even a studied aloofness, often permits that forest-for-the-trees clarity of thought and judgment. More than the argumentative acuity and linguistic nimbleness, it's this lucidity that sometimes seems lost in modern environment of public feuds and media criticism. Best of Enemies plays not only as a lively document of an engaging – and insanely entertaining – intellectual rivalry, but as a lament for the very idea of the public intellectual in contemporary life.