It seems weird to honor a man like Gore Vidal, a blue blood who built a career as one of the 20th century’s most cantankerous celebrity intellectuals — in essence, criticizing the ruling class into which he was born — with a by-the-book documentary portrait like “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.” It does exactly what its subject didn’t do: toe the line.
Vidal (1925-2012) was a hoot, as many of those interviewed for Nicholas D. Wrathall’s admiring film point out. His wicked wit is illustrated, of course, by the occasional archival film clip, but more often by on-screen snippets of printed text, a technique that quickly wears out its welcome.
Structurally, the film follows a strict chronology, beginning with a presentation of Vidal’s family background, courtesy of friend and former literary executor Jay Parini, who walks us through much of Vidal’s biography — from studies at Phillips Exeter to a writing career in Hollywood to failed runs for political office — with the predictability of a History Channel documentary. In between, the movie dutifully enumerates such additional highlights as the controversy over Vidal’s 1948 book “The City and the Pillar” (which caused a scandal for its depiction of gay sex) to his well-publicized feuds with such personalities as William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer and Christopher Hitchens.
These last clips, at least, are among the film’s most entertaining passages.
It is especially odd, given the movie’s subtitle, that “Gore Vidal” takes so long to get around to explaining the roots of Vidal’s famous cynicism about this country’s politics. The phrase “United States of Amnesia” isn’t uttered until quite late in the movie, as a snappy way of describing American complacence with corruption. But it’s hardly the banner of the film, which seems just as interested in examining Vidal’s intimate relationship with his longtime companion, Howard Auster, and his friendships with such luminaries as actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and playwright Tennessee Williams.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but it tends to take focus away from what seems to be the film’s central theme, which is Vidal’s contrarian view of the democratic republic in which we live. (Vidal and Auster emigrated to Italy in the 1960s, the better to observe the stateside rot, we are told.)
Wrathall has said that he became interested in making a movie when he read Vidal’s commentary in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The history of Vidal’s critique of American colonial arrogance, Wrathall has suggested, needed to be introduced to an audience that was too young to know about it or that had already forgotten it.
Interviewed while undergoing cancer treatment, a bald Hitchens reminiscences about how shocked he was when Vidal seemed to accuse the U.S. government of complicity in the attacks. Vidal, for his part, denies ever writing such a thing.
And their dispute is left there, without resolution. It’s only one of many frustrations in “The United States of Amnesia.”
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some crude language. 89 minutes.