Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Wrathall's considered, thorough and thoroughly entertaining film gives not just a sense of the man but also the importance to the world of iconoclasts like him."

Taking on the life and times of Gore Vidal is a formidable prospect for a documentarian, though the man himself was magnetic. The essayist and commentator - not to mention sometime politician and screenwriter - who died at 86 last year, was prolific in his written output and wasn't one to shy away from the camera, even as he hit out at televisual dumbing down. Never one to suffer fools gladly - early in this film Vidal dismisses a previous biographer with a scathing single sentence, "With that mistake, he was off and running" - one also imagines getting him to open up about his inner life was no easy feat.

Bravo then, Nicholas Wrathall, who has carefully wrangled Vidal's life story, opinions and legacy to create a surprisingly intimate portrait that mixes the personal with the political. Interspersing his film with intertitles carrying some of Vidal's best one-liners, Wrathall draws on the extensive archive of Vidal from a young age, including footage of him flying a plane at just 10 years old, to show how this good looking youngster carved his way in the world. The crowning glory of his film, however, is without doubt the extensive first-person interviews with Vidal who, undergoing the upheaval of leaving his beloved home on Italy's Amalfi coast due to ill health and well aware that he was nearing the end of his life, is prepared to be more reflective.

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Born in 1925 into privilege and politics, Vidal maintains that if there's one thing he could change about his life it would be "my mother", a socialite and alcoholic who would go on to marry in to the Kennedy clan. Highly influenced by his blind, autodidactic grandfather, his fearlessness about politics and his sexuality were infamous and Wrathall's interviews show his contrarian urges undimmed by the passage of time. Although Vidal refuses to be drawn much on the great love of his life Howard Austin, with whom he lived for more than 50 years until Austen's death in 2003 - insisting, surprisingly given his famous quote, "I never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television" that they never had sex - Wrathall fills in the gaps with interviews with some of Vidal's contemporaries, who offer insight into the writer's emotional life. Shots of Vidal preparing to leave his house and life behind also speak volumes.

Vidal is, as you would expect, more forthcoming about politics, lambasting JFK as a man whose charm was far in excess of his ability and pouring scorn on just about everyone since - as one commentator puts it, "If he sees a would, he doesn't heal it, he jabs it". Wrathall also includes discussion of Vidal's films Mryra Breckinridge and The Best Man as well as documenting key moments in his public life such as his televisual showdowns with Norman Mailer and his Senate primary rival Jerry Brown.

The documentary goes further than bald facts, however, to try to flesh out the man behind the reputation. Interviews with, also now deceased, British writer Christopher Hitchens about how Vidal named him his heir apparent only to then withdraw the commendation and footage showing the men's uncomfortable last exchange, offer a different perspective to that given by Vidal himself. Wrathall's considered, thorough and thoroughly entertaining film gives not just a sense of the man but also the importance to the world of iconoclasts like him, who kick against the establishment and is likely to send you hunting for Vidal's back catalogue.

Reviewed on: 06 May 2013
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Documentary about the fearless essayist.

Director: Nicholas Wrathall

Year: 2013

Runtime: 89 minutes

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