"Best of Enemies" delves into the entangled biographies of two great thinkers and luxuriates in the language and the theater of their 1968 debates. The documentary begs the question, "What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?”

The behind-the-scenes account captures the explosive televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr.

Co-director Robert Gordon spoke after the recent SXSW screening of the masterfully constructed and very fascinating film at the Alamo Ritz to a very receptive crowd. Gordon offered insight to the thought process behind “Best of Enemies,” sharing how much he carefully considered the material and research behind telling this story accurately including showing the power of television.

 

“It wasn’t an obvious story for us in the beginning,” he said. “We knew that there was a great story there with these two characters… The research really shaped the story. We didn’t recognize the power of the ABC footage until we were getting into it. ABC’s archive was very helpful in shaping the whole thing. The other important thing was that ’68 was such a powerful time.”

Gordon mentioned how the origins of “Best of Enemies” came from a DVD of the debates that were screened at an art museum. They inspired such passionate discussions, the guards would interrupt them to inform them that the museum was closed. While watching those debates, Gordon immediately saw parallels with the half a century old footage with the brutal partisan bickering that hinders modern political discourse.

“I was fascinated and as soon as I saw it I saw the metaphor for today of the culture wars being embodied in these two guys, and the roots of really where we are today can be seen in this confrontation,” he said.

In “Best of Enemies,” liberal actor John Lithgow as Gore Vidal and conservative actor Kelsey Grammar narrate their writings from articles published in Esquire Magazine. This provides additional stylistic context to the serious subject matter while adding a dramatic and political resonate flair for the conflict.

Both of their public and private relationship was “full of animosity” for each other as “Vidal was a talker, Buckley a debater.” Both the men understood the value of communicating their beliefs through this new emerging medium of television.

“These guys were early adapters to television. They understood the reach of television that was as important to be a writer as it was to be a TV personality because you could reach across America in no other way medium allows. Buckley was less theatrical when the TV wasn’t around, but Gore always kept the sharp knives in hand,” he said.

Audiences who are used to conservatives being belittled in liberal slanted documentaries can rest assured: “Best of Enemies” is a rather evenly balanced portrayal of a liberal and a conservative. Both Buckley and Vidal were smug intellectuals not favoring one over the other. And “Best of Enemies” prominently features Heritage Foundation historian Lee Edwards. When was the last time a conservative historian had a vital part in a mainstream documentary?

Gordon discovered a lot about Vidal and Buckley that lead to some surprising conclusions about both men.

“I went into this film thinking I’d rather have a drink with Gore then Buckley, and I came out thinking I’d rather have a drink with Buckley” he said.

“Best of Enemies” opens July 31 in New York and Los Angles with plans to expand mid-August. It’s a highly recommended documentary for politically savvy audiences.

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Kenny Miles is a Denver-based freelance writer and member of the Denver Film Critics Society.