Directed by: Nicholas D. Wrathall.
No matter what you think about Gore Vidal’s work as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter or political commentator – and lord knows opinions on Vidal run the gamut – no one can deny that the man was fascinating, outspoken and entertaining – otherwise, a perfect subject for a documentary. Nicholas D. Wrath all’s Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia suffers a little bit from trying to do too much – it basically covers Vidal’s entire life in 90 minutes, meaning that at times it plays like little more than a collection of Vidal’s greatest hits – and suffers again by adding celebrity interviews with the like of Tim Robbins and Sting – who do not add much to the film other than their celebrity. But the film is never boring, and is often very entertaining – especially when it simply relies on Vidal himself to tell his own story – either in classic interviews, or interviews recorded for the purpose of the documentary in the final years of his life. Vidal was a gifted speaker – quick witted, funny, opinionated and angry.
If you already know a lot about Vidal, I cannot help but wonder if the documentary has much to offer – except the pleasure of hearing Vidal talk. The film doesn’t really go in depth on his work as a novelist or playwright or screenwriter – it merely pays lip service to that part of his life, with multiple talking heads talking about how great his work was, without ever really telling us why – it simply accepts it as a given.
Wrathall’s major fascination with Vidal seems to be with him as a political commentator – and how Vidal, ever the liberal rabble rouser – took on pretty much every President from Kennedy to George W. Bush – finding them all lacking, even if, as was the case with Kennedy, he actually knew and liked the man. The movie may be at its best when it’s simply showing us Vidal and his infamous televised debates with conservative William F. Buckley – which is kind of a forerunner to today’s cable news structure of having two people who disagree on everything simply spend time yelling at each other. The difference being that both Buckley and Vidal were smart and funny – and gave as good as they got. The other fascinating relationship in the film is that between Vidal and Christopher Hitchens – who were once friends, and who separated forever over Hitchens support of the invasion in Iraq. According to Hitchens, Vidal saw him as his heir apparent – according to Vidal, it was Hitchens who saw himself as that. According to both they were friends, until the disagreement forever separated them – both of them are now dead.
The United States of Amnesia is not a great documentary – like many documentaries on a single person, who allowed a lot of access to the filmmaker – the film is too deferential to Vidal – it basically worships at his feet. Yet, the film is entertaining because Vidal is so smart and funny, and knew, right up until the end, how to hold a camera’s attention. If you know nothing about Gore Vidal, this documentary is a good place to start – but it certainly isn’t the place to end.