The new documentary "Best of Enemies" is rooted in history but very much a film of the here and now.

Filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville argue that modern political punditry on television can be traced back to the 1968 convention debates staged by ABC between noted conservative thinker William F. Buckley and his liberal counterpart, the author Gore Vidal.

But these dramatic events, geared toward boosting the flagging network's ratings, were not the sort of boilerplate recitation of talking points that characterize so much of the way politics is discussed in the culture these days.

"They were two intellectual independents," Morgan says. "They were completely unpredictable. That's something I find compelling to watch and what's so deadly about pundit TV [today] is you know what everyone is going to say before they say it."

The film, opening Friday, explores the circumstances surrounding the pairing of Buckley and Vidal, who despised each other before and after their rendezvous, placing the debates within the volatile political context of the time.

The essence of the picture lies in the clash of two distinct personalities who inherently understood the power of television and grasped the magnitude of their confrontation.

"I think the debates are opera," Morgan says. "There's tremendous theatricality to the debates that we responded to right at the beginning."

The Buckley-Vidal debates were harbingers of the Fox News-dominated culture of partisan hackery. Still, they were intended to elevate the public discourse, to provide substance along with the fireworks.

Those good intentions have been largely brushed aside these days. And the film finally plays as an ode to a long-gone era of meaningful debate.

"The networks have misunderstood the legacy," says Neville. "They focus on the sparks, the importance of getting people to have shouting matches."