AFI Docs: The Birth of Punditry

WASHINGTON — The AFI Docs Festival, the annual showcase of nonfiction film, opened with a title that is a perfect fit for this politics-and-media-obsessed town: “Best of Enemies.”

The documentary, from Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, recounts the backstory of the infamous ABC News debates that pitted intellectual heavyweights Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley against each other during the coverage of the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. Rather than a genteel disagreement of ideas, it turned into a bitter feud that had Vidal calling his counterpart a crypto-fascist, and Buckley returning by calling his nemesis a “queer.”

The project is not a walk down memory lane, but instead traces the lineage of today’s cable news shoutfests and punditry overdrive to that moment.

“We came upon the footage, and the footage, though 40 years old, spoke very much to the present moment,” Morgan said after the opening-night screening on Wednesday at Newseum, noting that he was “struck by how it augured the culture wars of the present day in particular.”

Neville said: “They are two amazing characters. They just don’t make people like that anymore. It is so operatic. There are characters who are at once heroic and tragic and are so complex. I think that was the first hook for us.” He added, “I think we realized early on other people were seeing what we felt just watching the debates, that it was at once a cautionary tale and an absurdist comedy.”

At the screening was ABC News’ Sam Donaldson, who covered the convention that year. He said that despite the tumult going on in the streets of Chicago, “everyone was shocked” that the Vidal-Buckley exchange got so out of hand and personal.

Neville and Gordon said that they worked for five years on the project, working for about four years before they secured significant funding. That is a common story among many of the filmmakers here, and a series of panels on Thursday will address issues of raising money and creating content for the digital age.

AFI Docs continues on Thursday with the world premiere of “The Three Hikers,” which follows the Americans who wondered off from the Iraq border into Iran in 2009 and set off an international incident, and “Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper,” about President Obama’s community-level effort to lift opportunities for poor boys and young men.

An expected 16,000 to 20,000 viewers are expected to attend throughout the weekend, an uptick from last year’s tally of 11,000.

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