“There are two things you never turn down: sex and appearing on television.” That painfully American quote, from Gore Vidal, wouldn’t be out of place on the poster for Best of Enemies, which traces the genesis of small-screen punditry back to a series of brutal and surreal debates between Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Though co-directors Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash’s America) move away from their usual rock-and-roll beat for this feature, they let their story loose at a high tempo, never allowing the surface stuffiness of their late subjects to decelerate the pace.

ABC, lagging far behind its Big Three competitors in the ratings, decided to switch up its coverage of the party conventions for the 1968 presidential election, inviting Vidal and Buckley — intellectuals known for stumping on opposite sides of the spectrum — to spar on live TV. Neville and Gordon contend that the results, a brash cocktail of brilliant discussion, smug indignation, skyrocketing tempers and cheap insults, set the precedent for the ad hominem everyone-yell format familiar to anyone who watches CNN or Fox News in 2015. (Their most combative exchange — Vidal labeling his opponent a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley batting it back by calling Vidal a “queer” — actually seems tame in this era of thick-headed Trump soundbites.)

Best of Enemies is a stirring, if oversimplified, piece of American political genealogy, but the real interest rests with the debaters themselves, standard-bearers for the far left and far right whose personal and professional failures tied in inextricably with their ideologies. The film is at its strongest when examining Buckley and Vidal’s private scars, as opposed to the public wounds they so viciously attempted to open up on each another. (Ritz Five)

City Paper grade: B