Witty pessimist Gore Vidal profiled in documentary ‘United States of Amnesia’
Despite his demeanor as a patrician observer, Gore Vidal was a political insider from a very young age. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. household of his grandfather, Thomas Gore, the blind U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, young Vidal read him all the daily newspapers. Later, he accompanied his grandfather to the Senate every day as a page, where he had a ringside seat for the way the American political system works—and fails to work.
In this crucible of experience, the young Vidal formed strong opinions on the promise of American democracy, as conceived by the Founding Fathers, and the gradual corruption of that democracy by the forces of money and power. Vidal spent all of his life as a celebrated novelist, essayist, playwright, commentator, and bon vivant trying to warn the American people of the ways their democracy was being eroded out from under them. This urgent warning continues from beyond the grave in Nichols D. Wrathall’s absorbing documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.
Wrathall’s film is more than a biography of Vidal (who died in 2012 at the age of 86). It’s also a concise and engaging collection of the opinions—witty, scandalous, scathing—on American politics and society that shaped Vidal’s life. The media-savvy author was a popular talk-show guest and broadcast news commentator all through his career, and Wrathall employs a wealth of TV clips from various decades, as well as his own extensive interview footage of Vidal toward the end of his days (aging, but no less ferocious), to tell the story of this remarkable life.
The earliest footage we see of Vidal is as a 10-year-old boy, nonchalantly flying a small plane designed by his aeronautical engineer father, Eugene Vidal (who “wanted to be the Henry Ford of aviation,” his son recalls). In retrospect, Vidal, the younger, spares no sentiment on his impossible mother, but romanticizes his beloved grandfather Gore as “the only senator from Oklahoma, an oil state, who had no money, because he took no graft.”
After a prep school education and a stint in the Army—which led to writing his first novel, Williwaw, on the folly of war—Vidal declined to go to Harvard, and went to Italy instead. More novels followed, one of which, The City and the Pillar, was so notorious for its frank depiction of homosexuality that the New York Times refused to review it—or anything else Vidal wrote for the next five years. Undaunted, Vidal wrote plays, screenplays, TV teleplays, essays, a mystery series and other successful novels, then relocated permanently to a house in Ravello, Italy, in the 1960s, with his longtime companion, Howard Austen. Here, he acquired the proper distance to write the series of American history novels (Burr, 1976, Lincoln, etc) for which he is most acclaimed.
His simultaneous career as a left-wing “celebrity intellectual” on U.S. TV is also well documented here. Vidal’s on-air feuds with waspish arch-conservative William F. Buckley and a choleric Norman Mailer are included. But more illuminating are Vidal’s off-the-cuff observations sprinkled throughout on American culture, politics, and society—from the “false mystique” of the Kennedys (it was JFK, not Johnson, he reminds us, who committed troops to Vietnam) to the notion that Harry S. Truman militarized U.S. society.
Vidal states that “the dream of every society is total control,” and suggests that American democracy is now based on “socialism for the rich,” who live off enormous government subsidies, “and free enterprise for the poor.” On the marketing of politicians, he notes that “Advertising … is the only art form America ever perfected,” and despairs over what is lost morally in the process of financing a presidential campaign. Vidal calls himself a pessimist because whenever he wants to know what motivates our culture, “I look into my own black heart.”
While his opinions are often deliberately provocative, his ideas stem from a lifetime of shrewd, if sad, contemplation of the human animal. Wrathall’s film is a fascinating glimpse into that somewhat rueful, yet stubbornly principled heart of darkness.
GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA *** (out of four) Opens June 27 at the Nickelodeon. With Gore Vidal. A film by Nicholas D. Wrathall. An IFC Films release. Not Rated. 83 minutes.