Much like its verbose subject, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, is brash, brazen and a little self-indulgent. Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall, this documentary explores the life of Gore Vidal (1925-2012), one of the most influential commentators in twentieth-century American politics. It features interview excerpts from the man himself, along with commentaries from famous friends such as writer and academic Jay Parini and renowned actor Tim Robbins. The film captures many of the attributes that made Vidal a controversial, though always entertaining, figure – his wit, his facility with words, his aphorisms, and his almost utter indifference to criticism. Despite having only a cursory familiarity with Vidal and his work prior to watching this film, it is a consistently intriguing portrait of a political and cultural iconoclast, whilst also providing a fascinating insight into a turbulent era in American history.
Crisply edited, the film moves along at a brisk pace, seamlessly joining together footage from an assortment of sources to create an involving narrative. The film provides insights into many of the events and relationships that would shape Vidal’s life – the influence of his grandfather, his distant relationship with his mother, and the sturdy presence of his long-term partner Howard Austen. There are also numerous asides into the famous friendships that Vidal had, such as with Paul Newman. And whilst the film portrays a man who was adamantly and defiantly outspoken, it captures the wry humour that made Vidal so frequently hilarious. Perhaps most entertaining is his ongoing feud with conservative political analyst William F. Buckley, and several scenes of their televised debates are included.
The film also provides insights into the literary legacy left behind in Vidal’s seminal works, from his novels exploring then culturally taboo subject matter such as homosexuality and transsexuality, to his historical novels asserting America’s status as the last empire. It would have been good to hear more about the broader social, and personal, consequences of Vidal being a publicly prominent gay figure, as would some more information about Vidal’s thoughts on America being in a perpetual state of amnesia. But these are minor issues. If anything, the film encourages those unfamiliar with these topics to seek out more information, whilst also providing those already familiar with Vidal and his legacy a compelling direct look at someone who was fearless and defiant in his opinions. Overall, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is an excellent documentary, filled with Vidal’s quick wit, insightful commentary and thought-provoking ideas.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is in Australian cinemas from 5 March through Antidote Films.