Review: ‘Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia’ tries to lock down a legend

An intellectual legend is seen in the twilight of his years in the documentary "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia." Credit: IFC Films
An intellectual legend is seen in the twilight of his years in the documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.”
Credit: IFC Films

‘Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia’
Director: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

No film could contain Gore Vidal, especially not an 83 minute one that has to contend with the pesky presence of Vidal himself. Filmed shortly before his 2012 death, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” attempts to bottle him up all the same. As pure exposition it’s adequate; as a portrait of Vidal on the cusp of the big sleep it’s equal parts despairing and fascinating.

What it really does is throw up its hands, as it should. Vidal is impossible to pin down — or at least that’s how he no doubt wished to be remembered. A seeming contradiction, he was a populist intellectual, rejected by academia and sometimes only tolerated by the mainstream, if at all. His key was being against all intellectuals but himself, going on his own sometimes questionable path alone, refusing to look back. He went straight to the people, often with truths they weren’t ready to hear, even if some of them were crap.

His clashes with William F. Buckley (“the Marie Antoinette of the right wing,” as per Vidal) could get a documentary of their own, and perhaps they should have. The film races through his CV, barely touching on his books, his novels, his plays, all the while offering mostly superficial takes on his politics and sexuality. It always takes him at his grandiose word, even if it seems to know he’s self-consciously modeled himself after greats like Mark Twain and Henry James. His bluster is the kind that’s fun to fan into a brush fire, just to see how far it will spread.

The doc’s framing is the elderly Vidal himself, his enemies and lovers vanquished, the turmoil of a crazy American century ending in the great hope of Obama. “I’d like to think of him as completely virtuous. I suspect he’s not,” he surmises, in typical Gore fashion. He’s not happy, and not a little bit bitter. When asked of his legacy, he offers an “I couldn’t care less” through a depressing smirk that all but kills your dream in drawing joy from being right.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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