Film review: GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA, from Built For Speed

Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, was an acclaimed and highly provocative playwright, novelist, essayist occasional political candidate and famed social and political commentator. The documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia traces Vidal’s life from privileged boyhood as a US Senator’s son, to his emergence as a prominent student intellectual, his military service during the Second World War, his writing career and his transformation into a high-brow TV social commentator who railed against the parlous state of American democracy. Vidal also became a raconteur and with his partner Howard Austen, hosted a non-stop steam of liberal celebrities that included Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Tim Robbins.

Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall this film is a patchwork of archival footage and present day interviews featuring those who knew Vidal.  Irritatingly, the film flits between the significant events of Vidal’s life giving us tantalising snippets of his TV debates with detractors like William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, testimonials from his admirers as well as file footage of major political events such as the Vietnam War and the Chicago Democratic convention riot.  Unfortunately, the film never settles long enough on a specific topic, so, just as we become immersed in an aspect of Vidal’s life, the film leaps to something else.

Despite the film’s fragmented style, it still succeeds in revealing Vidal’s erudition, wit and political awareness.  He often appears disillusioned with America to the point of misanthropy as he condemns Republicans and Democrats alike. He also warns against what he sees as the misleading seductive power of charismatic politicians such as JFK and Barrack Obama. He describes himself as Kennedy’s friend but condemns his administration as disastrous. Interview footage of Vidal also reveals his phenomenal prescience about the potential impact of US foreign policy on the Muslim world.

Impressive an orator as he is, there’s a gnawing sense that Vidal, who came from a wealthy and privileged background, is a cloistered intellectual who enjoyed surveying society like an Olympian god much as he surveyed the world from the rarefied heights Italian waterfront mansion he shared with Austen.  Based on what we learn from the documentary, Vidal it seems, never had to get his hands dirty (his war service excepted) slogging it out with the working class or even dealing directly with grinding world of bureaucracy and compromise that is politics. A similar accusation could, of course, be levelled at politically outspoken celebrities.

The film mentions some of the artistic disasters with which he was associated such as the horrendous film adaptation of his novel Myra Breckinridge which has a permanent place in all time worst movie lists although the film glides over this abomination with the calm eloquence of Vidal himself.

This is a limited and at times self-serving view of Vidal but with such a fascinating and complex subject, this film is never dull.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Nicholas D. Wrathall.

Release date: 6th Mar 2014

Running time: 83 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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