Film Review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Gore Vidal

The new biopic Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia follows the brilliant, brash writer from birth to death, largely letting him speak for himself.

The son of politically and socially connected parents, Gore Vidal was introduced to wealth and power at a young age. After his father had an affair with Amelia Earhart and his parents separated, Vidal worked for his grandfather — the blind, corruption-busting U.S. Senator Thomas Gore. The senator valued knowledge and independent thought, and in Amnesia, Vidal says admiringly that his grandfather left congress with “no money because [he] took no graft.”

These two experiences laid the groundwork for Vidal to become one of the most insightful and entertaining liberal commentators of the 20th century: he was the writer who never shied away from controversy; the insider who revealed the secrets of the rich and powerful; the jester who told truth to power.

After serving in World War II, Vidal wrote numerous provocative works of fiction and non-fiction. In 1948, he wrote one of America’s first gay novels, which made him rich — and got his next five books blacklisted from review by the New York Times. Following this mixed blessing, Vidal moved to the more hospitable social clime of Los Angeles, where he hobnobbed with stars like Paul Newman and covertly wrote Charlton Heston into a gay romance.

Vidal was also a notorious troll. A fearless liberal with an acerbic wit, he loved to confront the leading scaremongers of his time. In one of many television appearances, Vidal gets William F. Buckley so flustered that Buckley, grinding his teeth, resorts to calling Vidal a “queer” and threatens him with violence. In another, Vidal baits his nemesis into saying “freedom breeds poverty.” The man pushed buttons and he did it well.

Much of Amnesia is comprised of clips like these, in which Vidal says insightful, outrageous, or funny things about America, other people, or himself. There is no shortage of such clips in the world, and anyone familiar with Vidal knows that pretty much everything he said was quotable. This makes it easy to assemble a film of interesting Vidal vignettes, but maybe not if you want to go in-depth.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t aim to do more than scratch the surface. Amnesia is divided into chapters, but each feels like a vehicle for the clips rather than any kind of argument. The film is also set up chronologically, the default for filmmakers who have no message beyond “this guy was great.” This is all well and good for newcomers, but those already familiar with Vidal may get bored by 90 minutes of Shit Gore Said. Vidal wouldn’t have appreciated such sloppiness — especially for a topic as important as himself.

The film also offers very little in the way of criticism, despite its subject’s distaste for the deification of public figures. As a lifelong skeptic, Vidal would’ve ridiculed such superficial portrayals. Like anyone — especially those with a tendency to moralize — Vidal was a complex and contradictory character, and he often crossed the line. None of this gets airtime in the film.

How Vidal defined liberalism

How Vidal defined liberalism

Despite these shortcomings, Amnesia does succeed at introducing viewers to a brilliant mind. The filmmakers are right to point out that Vidal was a “freedom-lover” before the term became co-opted by conservatives. In his life, Vidal opposed the expansion of executive powers; he condemned police brutality and the surveillance state; he saw little difference between Republicans and Democrats in terms of policy. All of this is highly relevant today, and Vidal started saying it 60+ years ago.

Gore Vidal died in 2012, having lived long enough to witness the September 11 attacks and to see his dire predictions about executive overreach, privacy, and the dominant political parties come true. He also outlived Howard Austen, his partner of 53 years, and fellow polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Vidal’s one-time intellectual “heir” (whom he later spurned).

Nobody will replace Vidal — a point he makes viciously clear in the film — but if someone could, he or she would be defending whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning. This isn’t covered in the film, either; maybe like today’s pundits, the filmmakers considered it too controversial. But safety of thought was never a concern for Gore Vidal, and the loss of Vidal is a loss for America.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia will play a limited engagement at the Ken Cinema from Friday, June 6 through Thursday, June 12.

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