The masterstroke of Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2013) is the substantial presence of the man himself. It would, undoubtedly, still make for interesting material even in his absence – he has spent more than enough time proffering his views on page and camera – but wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable. It’s in Vidal’s staunchly held and eloquently voiced opinions that the film truly shines. The director lets the archive footage, famous interviews and talking heads support – rather than overwhelm – the man at their centre as he candidly reflects on his country, life and work.
Vidal grew up in Washington where, as a boy, he acted as something of an aide to his blind grandfather who served in the Senate. This resulted in a grandson that became a lifelong Democrat and – despite only a brief flirtation with an actual career in politics; – he became a writer, essayist and celebrity intellectual. His barbed tongue was oft set to task righting social injustice and condemning his government while his unfailing liberalism saw him a major supporter of the gay rights movement and a continuous critic of US foreign policy. Wrathall manages to finely balance all of these aspects of Vidal’s life, devoting time to the controversy of his 1968 transsexual satire, the infamous Myra Breckinridge, and the best of his many TV encounters.
The jewel in this particular crown is footage from debates between Vidal and right-wing American commentator William F. Buckley, with whom Vidal trades verbal blows on several highly entertaining occasions. Equally, The United States of Amnesia devotes time to exploring his longstanding companionship with Howard Austen. Vidal refers to his nation – which he abandoned for the Italian coast for many years – as the “United States of Amnesia” in a typically aphoristic reference to its communal selective memory over its political disasters. It actually proves to be a slightly ironic title given that the film’s most obvious flaw is probably its hagiographic tone.
For such a keen and forthright critic, it seems like something of a misstep that Wrathall’s doc fails to touch upon any of the more contentious or problematic of Vidal’s opinions. That hardly derails proceedings, however, as we’re treated to such an intimate portrait of Vidal as to forgive the areas in which the film might be lacking. Familiar faces such as Sting and Tim Robbins talk about their friendships with him whilst it’s left to the likes of Christopher Hitchens to delve a little deeper into his intellect. As mentioned, however, it is the man himself – in all his cantankerous verbosity – that proves the linchpin of The United States of Amnesia.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia screens as part of the DocHouse strand at ICA London on 20 February, 2014. For more info, visit dochouse.org.