×

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.)

Popular on Variety

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.

More Reviews

  • A still from Vivos by Ai

    'Vivos': Film Review

    To the individual enduring it, sorrow seems a lonely, defenseless emotion, one from which others are too quick to look away. Shared and felt en masse, however, it can become something different: a galvanizing force, a wall, not diminished in pain but not diminished by it either. Ai Weiwei’s stirring new documentary “Vivos” runs on [...]

  • Jumbo

    'Jumbo': Film Review

    Tall, dark and handsome? The crush that Noémie Merlant’s character, Jeanne, explores in “Jumbo” is one out of three: a 25-foot-tall carnival ride who seduces the amusement park janitor as she spit-cleans his bulbs. During the night shift, Jumbo literally lights up Jeanne’s life, and while he’s not handsome in the traditional sense — especially [...]

  • Ironbark

    'Ironbark': Film Review

    Movie spies typically fall into one of two categories. There are the butterflies — flamboyant secret agents like James Bond or “Atomic Blonde” who behave as conspicuously as possible. And then there are the moth-like kind, who do their best to blend in. The character Benedict Cumberbatch plays in “Ironbark” belongs to the latter variety, [...]

  • Miss Juneteenth review

    'Miss Juneteenth': Film Review

    “Miss Juneteenth” richly captures the slow pace of ebbing small-town Texas life, even if you might wish there were a bit more narrative momentum to pick up the slack in writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ first feature. She’s got a very relatable heroine in Nicole Beharie’s Turquoise, an erstwhile local beauty queen whose crown proved the [...]

  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always

    'Never Rarely Sometimes Always': Film Review

    The basic plot of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is easy enough to describe. A 17-year-old girl named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) winds up pregnant in a small Pennsylvania town. Prevented from seeking an abortion by the state’s parental consent laws, she takes off for New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), where what they’d [...]

  • 'The Dissident' Review: Powerful Look at

    'The Dissident': Film Review

    It’s become common, if not cliché, for a critic reviewing a documentary about a turbulent real-world event to write something like, “It exerts the power of a true-life thriller!” Well, make no mistake: “The Dissident” does. Directed by Bryan Fogel, who in 2017 made the Oscar-winning “Icarus” (about the Russian doping of Olympic athletes), the [...]

  • Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

    'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets': Film Review

    “Smile for the camera, motherf—ers,” warns the graffiti outside the Roaring Twenties, a Las Vegas dive bar where spirits are high because the end is nigh. The boozers who’ve braved this dim red cave, in Bill and Turner Ross’ bitterly funny docufiction film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” have signed on to play themselves in an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content