By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
“Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia” is an unabashedly favorable biopic about the outspoken man of letters.
Over the course of more than six decades, Vidal distinguished himself as a master of erudition. He displayed remarkable versatility as a novelist (“Burr,” “Myra Breckinridge”), playwright (“The Best Man’), screenwriter (“Ben-Hur”), and prolific essayist. Vidal was also a pioneer in publicly proclaiming his bisexuality and using the new-fangled medium of television as a forum for his various outspoken views. As he pointed out, “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”
The film recounts Vidal’s patrician background. He served as a guide to a blind grandfather, a long-serving United States Senator from Oklahoma. Vidal’s father served as FDR’s director of air commerce. This enabled the young Vidal to pilot a plane, when he was a mere 10 years old. Despite being a scion of the privileged class, he became a fierce critic of wealth inequality.
Much of the film dwells on Vidal’s scathing assessment of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He posits that the country was founded by the smartest guys around and no one has seen them since. Vidal acknowledges that JFK was an inspiring speaker and a charming fellow, but describes him as a poor leader who dragged the country into the Vietnam debacle. He mocks Ronald Reagan as “the best cue card reader they could find” and George W. Bush as a “fool.”
Influenced by his grandfather’s isolationist proclivities, Vidal castigates the U.S. for morphing from a democratic republic to an imperialist warmonger. He is particularly harsh in his critique of the U.S.’s post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. According to Vidal, “What we’ve done is unite the Muslim world. We’ve made a lot of trouble for ourselves. This is only the beginning, and we will wish we had not done it.” As to the Patriot Act, he observed, “This is contrary to everything in our Constitution.”
Of course, no biopic of Vidal would be complete without a discussion of his feuds with fellow intellectuals. Footage from the ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention shows William F. Buckley, Jr., losing his customary aplomb, when Vidal exposed his solipsism. Then, there is the joint appearance by Vidal and Norman Mailer on “The Dick Cavett Show.” While backstage, the pugnacious Mailer hear-butted Vidal. Afterwards, Vidal deadpanned, “Once again, words failed Norman Mailer.”
Vidal’s evolving relationship with British progressive intellectual, Christopher Hitchens, provides interesting fodder for the film. Hitchens shamelessly jockeyed to assume Vidal’s mantle. At a bookstore signing, we see Hitchens obsequiously trying to curry Vidal’s approbation to no avail. When Hitchens aligned himself with neoconservatives and supported the invasion of Iraq, the two men became estranged. As the film fails to anticipate, Hitchens ironically predeceased Vidal.
The film details the role that homophobia played in Vidal’s life. His second novel, “The City and the Pillar” contained the depiction of a same-sex relationship. Vidal contends that the book critic for “The New York Times” was so disgusted that he refused to review the book or Vidal’s subsequent five books. The film frankly discusses Vidal’s 53-year long domestic relationship with Howard Austen. The two shared a sprawling, cliff-side villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow’s Nest) on Italy’s Amalfi coast. The film captures Vidal as he departs the villa, following his partner’s death. It is a poignant moment.
Writer/director, Nicholas Wrathall, has clearly cultivated Vidal’s trust and a relaxed relationship between them seems evident. To augment the new stock that he shot, Wrathall has done an excellent job of cobbling together Vidal’s clever epigrams with archival footage. He makes no effort to obfuscate its favorable bias toward Vidal matter or feign objectivity. At the same time, Wrathall never fawns over his subject. The film does have a certain hagiographic quality. However, it does not exaggerate Vidal’s role as an influential public intellectual, the last of a dying breed.
During the film, Vidal is asked what he anticipates his legacy will be. He retorts, “I couldn’t care less.” Despite his stated indifference, “Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia” is a fitting tribute to a man who deserves to be well-remembered.
“Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia”
★★★½ No MPAA rating (contains profanity) 84 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org