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'Best of Enemies' showcases brainy bloodsport

'Best of Enemies' showcases brainy bloodsport
William F. Buckley Jr., left, and Gore Vidal in a scene from "Best of Enemies." (Magnolia Pictures)

Moviegoers wary of the summer's expensively rendered superhero skirmishes can still find mano-a-mano thrills — all verbal, no less tension-filled — in "Best of Enemies." Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's pungently entertaining, richly observed documentary revisits the 1968 TV debates between conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal provocateur Gore Vidal.

Their mannered, sneering and smart clashes about the country's precarious future and each other's failings — genuine loathing existed between them — are generally cited as a high watermark in mass-communicated ideological theater, yet viewed in hindsight as shouty, cynically heated modern punditry's original sin. Devised by then-struggling ABC as a cost-effective way of adding pizazz to its presidential-race convention coverage, the debates, the movie credibly suggests, forever changed the news media's approach to covering politics.

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Fleet, brutally funny and ultimately mournful for the lost art of informed public intellectuals brandishing wounding insights, the film is a fizzy bath of expertly organized archival footage and commentary from interviewees, including the late Christopher Hitchens. Gordon and Neville deftly structure fortified mini-portraits of the antagonists — their East Coast origins, political office ambitions, writerly influence (Buckley's National Review, Vidal's novels) — throughout the narrative of the debates themselves, which eventually took a sour turn in Chicago when the riots spurred an infamous exchange of name-calling in which Vidal's "crypto-fascist" jab sparked Buckley to call Vidal a "queer" on national television.

Though each would go on to write lengthy articles dissecting their experiences, scanning the ratings proved to be the only analysis that mattered to the networks. In giving historical context to the poisonous nature of our oft-bemoaned political discourse, "Best of Enemies" showcases brainy bloodsport with humor, nostalgia and, appropriately, a lacing of melancholy.

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"Best of Enemies."

MPAA rating: R for some sexual content/nudity and language.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Playing: At the Landmark, West L.A.

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