By Don Simpson | May 27, 2014
Director: Nicholas Wrathall
In capturing the life of a man who deftly re-imagined how we approach history and politics, it is unfortunate that Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia relies so heavily upon such an uninventive documentary format. Combining direct interviews with archival footage, director Nicholas Wrathall is lucky to at least have Gore Vidal’s natural charisma as the heart and soul of this documentary.
For those who are unfamiliar with his uncanny knack for highly-intellectualized wit and humor, The United States of Amnesia presents Vidal in stark contrast to the perpetual stream of verbal diarrhea that spews from modern day pundits. Even when pitted against his nemesis William F. Buckley, Jr. during ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Vidal transcended the stuffy intellectualism and presented his arguments with a poetic panache that made his elegantly barbed jabs all the more entertaining. Unfortunately, Vidal’s high-minded style of political discourse died with him on July 31, 2012.
Vidal’s lack of intellectual equals becomes increasingly evident as all of the other interviewees sprinkled throughout The United States of Amnesia pale in comparison to him. Their unabashed hero-worship does very little to contribute to the discussion of Vidal’s life, instead everyone seems much more enamored by his vibrant social life — as if to suggest that his friendship with Paul Newman or notorious feuds with Truman Capote and Norman Mailer are more important than his intellectual prowess. Even Vidal’s criticisms of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are reduced to comical soundbites that are primed for tabloid headlines. In this context, The United States of Amnesia seems to cheapen Vidal’s opinions and arguments, abbreviating the sound bites into petty and slanderous slurs; its just a shame that Wrathall does not allow him to justify the statements.
While many viewers might only know of Vidal from reading his historical novels such as Lincoln or Burr, Wrathall opts to present a very human portrait of Vidal; focusing on his personality, The United States of Amnesia avoids any scholarly analysis of Vidal’s work. Hearing Vidal’s friends and admirers speak about him, it becomes increasingly evident that he was an enigma to everyone. Vidal seemed to enjoy the mysterious nature of his public persona, especially when it came to his sexuality. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), is recognized as one of the first major American novels to directly feature homosexuality, but Vidal was opposed to defining people in terms of being “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Vidal wholeheartedly believed that sexuality is not as clear cut as those polarizing terms infer, suggesting that everyone is bisexual to some degree. This made Vidal’s purportedly asexual relationship with long-term partner Howard Austen all the more perplexing to those who knew him.
Our world may still need a more academic interpretation of Vidal’s work, but Wrathall’s documentary serves as an essential introduction to the man, the myth and the legend. The United States of Amnesia presents Vidal in such an approachable light that perhaps it will propel more people to become curious about his novels and essays.