by Kathie Smith
The wickedly spry intellect of Gore Vidal and his iconoclastic position as a social critic might make for obligatory documentary material, but quarantined as a routine talking-head biography, it also begs for a form that goes beyond the status quo. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia opens in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery in Washington, D.C. as Vidal casts an eye over the tomb where his companion Howard Austin is buried and where a space is saved for him, name already engraved into the stone. Vidal needs no introduction and he’s allowed to wax lyrical, cane in hand, in a posthumous moment—we watch knowing that the engraving in the granite was completed two years ago with his death. The sentimental music rises, the camera pulls back, and the tone is set for a by-the-numbers overview that undervalues this one-of-a-kind firecracker by playing it way too safe.
Director: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Producers: Theodore James, Nicholas D. Wrathall
Editors: Suresh Ayyar, Rob Bralver
Music: Ian Honeyman
Cast: Gore Vidal, Jay Parini, Nina Straight, Robert Scheer, Christopher Hitchens, Burr Steers, Dick Cavett, Jodie Evans, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sting
Premiere: April 18, 2013 – Tribeca Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
Fortunately, Vidal’s life in itself is a fascinating narrative with ample archive material to support. Born into an aristocratic family that had a measure of wealth and social status to match, he seemed destine to become one of the corrupt powermongers he would later criticize. But his idolization of his grandfather, U.S. Senator Thomas Gore, an anti-war pragmatist who also happened to be blind, instilled democratic values in young Vidal (who would often accompany his grandfather on the Senate floor as his reader) that proved unshakable. Vidal’s disenchantment with American civics began with his grandfather, and continued with World War II and escalated militarization under what Mikhail Gorbachev called a “victory complex” in the U.S. The final straw, anchoring his political convictions that would become so infamous, was watching his friend, John F. Kennedy, get sucked into the venal machine of Washington and ignite the momentum for the Vietnam War. Vidal admits to keeping a portrait of Kennedy in his library, not as a “memory of Camelot” but to “never again to be taken in by anybody’s charm.”
Vidal—in his various roles as politician, novelist, essayist, and scriptwriter—is, of course, many different things to many people, but director Nicholas Wrathall keeps the opines leaning heavily towards adoration in a turnstile of testimonials that includes Tim Robbins, Vidal’s literary executor Jay Parini, sister Nina Straight, Sting, journalist Robert Scheer, writer Christopher Hitchens, nephew Burr Steers, Dick Cavett, and friend Jodie Evans. The dominant voice, however, is Vidal’s own. Wrathall’s project with Vidal obviously began well before he passed away (and before Hitchens died in 2011), supplementing every point of this personal narrative with contemporary interviews. Although Vidal’s ruminations are not enlightening or revelatory, they do their job in underscoring his significance as a thinker in the 21st century.
There are many moments in the United States of Amnesia that pinpoint Vidal’s intellectual prescience. In a 1968 televised debate with William F. Buckley (certainly one of the highlights of the documentary), Vidal voices his concern for the inequality in America, pulling out the statistic that the top 5 percent of the population had 20 percent of the income. Civically engaged audiences might have a horrifying feeling of déjà vu—43 years before the Occupy Movement (when the top 1 percent controlled that 20 percent of the pie), Vidal was sounding the alarm. He also saw the writing on the wall when the Patriot Act was signed, foreseeing the gross abuse of rights so evident with the foggy legality of Gitmo and the whistleblowing by Edward Snowden. Likewise, watching President Obama’s 2008 victory speech, Vidal foretold of the end of the Republican party, which we will no doubt watch slowly happen (see Eric Cantor’s loss to Tea Party demagogue David Brat). Vidal was also ahead of the social curve by rejecting sexual norms and being quite vocal about at it at time when no one talked about homosexuality (not to mention his proclaimed pansexuality).
Gore Vidal was possibly the most popular persona non grata the intellectual sphere has ever seen, wielding a certain amount of power and unapologetically calling a spade a spade. The United States of Amnesia packages a primer on Vidal that fans will know and enjoy and curious newcomers can readily digest, but the movie itself lacks a certain amount of adventure, perhaps in favor of honoring Vidal’s legacy. The movie is peppered with clips and interviews, both old and new, and thought provoking quotes, presumably by Vidal (only because they are not credited to anyone else), but nothing that feels like anything more than skimming the surface. You don’t have to look any further than James Marsh’s Man on Wire or Steve James’ forthcoming Life Itself to find engaging biopics that manipulate standards just enough to create a spark—a spark that is sadly missing from Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.