Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Brooke Gladstone, Todd Gitlin, John McWhorter, Richard Wald, William Sheehan, Frank Rich, Sam Tanenhaus, Lee Edwards, Reid Buckley, Linda Bridges, Fred Kaplan.
Written by: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Directed by: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content/nudity and language
Running Time: 87
Date: 08/07/2015

Best of Enemies (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Enemies' Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The documentary Best of Enemies, about two intellectuals debating each other on television back in 1968, may sound like a snooze. Yet it's amazingly relevant, hugely entertaining, very funny, and a strong contender for my favorite documentary this year. Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow lend their voices to Buckley and Vidal's writings. Robert Gordon and Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) co-direct.

Trailing behind in the 1968 ratings, the ABC network approached conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal to debate the issues of the day over a series of ten broadcasts. Astonishingly, it was a huge success. Best of Enemies shows the footage in such a way that the timely issues melt away and what remains are acutely timeless arguments between liberal and conservative values. Remarkably, the movie manages to keep a non-partisan balance between the two men.

It's all very refreshing, given that no debates of this quality has taken place in some time. (Intellectual conservatives do not even exist today; the right has practiced an anti-intellectual and anti-education stance since the Reagan years.)

The documentary does its job of filling in the biographical blanks of both men, whose backgrounds are strikingly similar, considering they were such bitter enemies, as well as the events leading up to the show. Their personalities become as important to the material as the politics. (I like to say that the best movie adversaries should have the capability of sitting down for a coffee and a chat with each other; that's essentially what happens here, no matter who you regard as the hero or villain.)

Eventually Vidal and Buckley's highly passionate, scholarly, sophisticated bickering culminated in an on-air explosion, which sadly gave rise to today's empty, anti-intellectual, shock-debates. It's too bad that actual content has mostly disappeared from the discourse.

Magnolia's Blu-ray release doesn't exactly benefit from a high-def format, given the age of the archival materials, but nevertheless, it remains my favorite documentary of 2015 (so far) and essential viewing. Bonuses include an hour of extra modern-day interviews, an interview with the two directors (about 7 minutes), and trailers for this and other Magnolia films.

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