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Film Review: ‘Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia’

This highly entertaining documentary should attract healthy niche sales.

With:
Gore Vidal, David Mamet, Jay Parini, Nina Straight, Tim Robbins, Robert Scheer, Christopher Hitchens, Burr Steers, Dick Cavett, Jodie Evans, Sting, Mikhail Gorbachev, Chris Matthews, Barrett Prettyman. (English, Russian dialogue)

A fine memorial to one of 20th-century America’s most brilliant, original — and cranky — thinkers, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” duly charts the late scribe’s artistic achievements and often glittering celebrity social life. But the emphasis is on his parallel persona as a harsh scold of U.S. social injustices and political corruptions, his remarks about which invariably got attention even while delivered from his longtime expatriate home in Italy. Primarily shot with Vidal’s full cooperation before his death a year ago at age 86, Nicholas Wrathall’s highly entertaining documentary — though it will also infuriate some — should attract healthy niche sales, especially to broadcasters.

Aptly introduced by one TV interviewer as “a thorn in the American establishment, of which he is by birth a charter member,” Vidal was raised in a family with high social and political connections. Rather than choosing politics, however, he sought fame as a novelist — but after his acclaimed first efforts, 1948’s  “The City and the Pillar” caused such a scandal with its sympathetic treatment of homosexuality that he was blackballed from coverage for years by many outlets, including the New York Times. This forced him to turn toward Hollywood and Broadway for work; his successes there included the screenplay for “Ben-Hur” and stage hit “The Best Man.”

Marvelously indifferent to the notion of tact — yet so articulate he made mincemeat of famed verbal jousters like William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, as recalled in some delicious clips here — Vidal made no secret of his own views on sexuality, which were pretty out-there even by later Gay Lib standards. (He announced, “Sex destroys relationships … I’m devoted to promiscuity,” while living many decades with platonic companion Howard Austin.)

But it was his willingness to engage with other issues of the day that often enraged conservatives. The Vietnam War, Nixon, the Reagan era rise of evangelical Christian power brokers, U.S. provocations against perceived enemy governments, President George W. Bush’s responses to 9/11 (“We’ve had bad presidents before but we’ve never had a goddamn fool”), and the escalating gap between the wealthy and the struggling (“This is a country of the rich, for the rich and by the rich”) all earned his memorably vivid tongue-lashings. He also critiqued what he deemed the general self-mythologizing of Americans as historically open-minded and resistant to institutional manipulation.

While much here will be familiar to fans (especially those who have read his memoirs), there are some surprises, like Vidal’s latter-day dismissal of good friend John F. Kennedy’s “disastrous” presidency; the revelation that he once shared a cottage with fellow pal Paul Newman; or the drama of his contentious estrangement from onetime protege Christopher Hitchens (who died in 2011, but is also extensively interviewed here).

Pic doesn’t delve deeply into Vidal’s career as a fiction writer, although it’s worth noting that an oeuvre that juggled such high-profile outrages as “Myra Breckenridge” with brilliantly crafted historical novels like “Lincoln” remains undervalued precisely because he was so prolific and popular. Clips from his film projects add to a lively mix that also encompasses much vintage news/talkshow footage (including a notable evisceration of an extremely uncomfortable young Jerry Brown during one of the Vidal’s two actual political campaigns), plus interviews with famous friends like Dick Cavett and Tim Robbins.

But the grounding material here is with the elderly Vidal himself, whom we first encounter ruminating atop his future burial plot, shrugging off the fear of death like any other opponent. Unfailingly witty and devastatingly insightful, he personifies that near-extinct species — the public intellectual.

Assembly is rock-solid.

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