“Art is the enemy of democracy.” “The dream of every society is total control.” “The United States has become an empire of the most predatory kind.” Gore Vidal—patrician archivist and quip machine of the American Left—knows how to make a statement. Part of his legacy as a political analyst comes from his longevity within politics and his tendency to be borne out. The rest comes from the skewering precision with which those observations are delivered.
In this loving documentary, director Nicholas Wrathall threads Vidal’s greatest rhetorical hits through a biography that touches lightly on his personal life (first love Jimmie Trimble, longtime companion Howard, friendships with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Tennessee Williams). It focuses more on Vidal’s public life, including rivalries with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. “Almost insidiously intelligent,” one interviewee describes him, as if Vidal’s intellect is a creeping danger to the public happiness. Vidal might well accept. Wry and determinedly unflappable, his presence is palpable no matter how pessimistic his outlook. His clipped, theatrical rumble only deepens with age and experience, whether he’s defending homosexuality in the 1950s or outlining American warmongering in 2001. He’s also a gifted mimic, which makes for entertaining asides about, say, John F. Kennedy—who Vidal befriended, though he’d later become disillusioned with his political efficacy.
A novelist (whose content in The City and the Pillar gained him notoriety only surpassed by Myra Breckinridge two decades later), screenwriter, essayist and would-be politician, Vidal is certainly a fascinating figure. The film’s website trumpets The United States of Amnesia as “Gore Vidal’s last word and testimony,” and if there’s any glossing-over of more controversial moments, it could be chalked up there. In the end, perhaps Vidal says it best: “The thing about myths and legends: should we allow reality to intrude?”