Gore Vidal is fascinating. Whether you agree with his politics or you enjoy is witty brand of snark or neither, he led an incredible and prolific life – one that could encompass multiple documentaries. This ultimately becomes the pitfall of “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” as it tries to make a singular documentary of such a multi-faceted figure.
Director Nicholas Wranthall has a resume ranging from music videos to PBS documentaries and therefore should be able to convey both the serious and pop aspects of Vidal’s career, but unfortunately, the film appears to be a jumbling together of some really great footage – from interviews with the man himself throughout his final years to a near-heartbreaking discussion with the late Christopher Hitchens (the real or self-acclaimed Vidal heir, depends on who you believe) to vintage footage of famous Vidal moments, including the infamous Buckley vs. Vidal debates and the Norman Mailer incident (apparently, the film’s production team is still seeking funding for the rights to a bunch of the footage and photos, or at least they were at the time of the screening). Wranthall admitted at the screening that we attended that the version we would be watching had been sent in to Tribeca about a week before and that would explain why it felt like a rushed editing job, lacking the necessary narrative structure to go from being a general overview to a compelling documentary.
Following a chronological order with a few too many thematic quotes thrown in (the effect being like that of a PowerPoint presentation), Wranthall was able to touch on most aspects of Vidal’s vast life, but did not succeed in giving an in-depth portrait of the man, although the film was full of compelling interviews. As someone who stumbled upon Vidal’s “Myra Breckinridge” in college due to the Mae West-starring cult classic and has gone on to appreciate his historical fiction, television, film and theater scripts, and large collection essays, I wanted to learn more from this documentary, things that wouldn’t be at my fingertips via the magic of Wikipedia and Google. Certain moments were awe-inspiring, like Gore Vidal contemplating life and death at his gravesite, and others were puzzling like Vidal’s adamant protestation that he and his partner Howard Austen did not have a sexual relationship. Rather than trying to touch on every aspect of Vidal’s life, ‘Amnesia’ should have focused on one strain or broken it up into more focused chapters – politics, sexuality, public persona, literary achievements, etc.
This film is a decent round-up of Vidal’s life and would be fine as a biography tool in a school course on Vidal, but doesn’t suffice for a feature-length documentary on someone described in his NYT obit as “the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization.” Lacking the style necessary to tell the story of one of the greater personas of the 20th century, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” will be forgotten unless improvements are made. [B-, until further notice]