It’s a little unnerving to see a sentimental portrait of a rigorously unsentimental man. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia profiles the writer and historian in his painful autumn years, shuffling the new footage with archival clips of Vidal from the days when he was all but inescapable on TV, the literary equivalent of Carl Sagan (and equally parodiable). We see the Vidal of the ’60s and ’70s in varying degrees of slimness or paunch, intellectually limber and grinning when he sniffs rhetorical blood in the water, but then we always return to the octogenarian version, sodden with wrinkles and disappointment. He’s as sharp as ever, but the grin is gone. For one thing, nobody’s left to cross swords with him; his media adversaries have fallen one by one. William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, even the relative whippersnapper Christopher Hitchens — all gone. Vidal outlived his enemies and his friends, finally excusing himself from the room in 2012.
This documentary, which numbers Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers among its producers, tries gamely to fit an 86-year life into an 89-minute film. What we get is unavoidably Gore’s Greatest Hits. The Vidal/Buckley verbal shoot-out is here; Norman Mailer snarling at Vidal (and everyone else, including the studio audience) on The Dick Cavett Show gets a short clip; Vidal clowning Jerry Brown while running against him for the California U.S. Senate seat is probably the comic highlight. Brown sits there, scowling and furious, while Vidal more or less makes the very notion of Jerry Brown seem absurd. (It made me want to seek out Gary Conklin’s documentary on this episode in Vidal’s life, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No.) Essentially, the movie is a feature-length A&E Biography, from back when A&E still aired such things and not, say, Duck Dynasty.
Unadventurously directed by Nicholas Wrathall, the movie opens with Vidal standing at his own tomb — shared with longtime partner Howard Austen — and reaches a climax of sorts when, after Austen’s death, Vidal moves out of the Italian villa they also shared. Having lost his slice of paradise, Vidal seems to long for the grave. What does Wrathall have to say about any of this? Nothing. The film is carelessly structured; it began as a couple of filmed interviews and then grew into a feature. It hasn’t been shaped to tell any particular story. It seems to exist only because Wrathall had the footage. It certainly isn’t as radical as Vidal’s own words often were and are. I suppose Wrathall might say that his film will lead people to Vidal’s writing, though Vidal himself might bitterly counter that (a) nobody watches documentaries and (b) even if they did, nobody reads books either.
That was why Vidal valued his TV appearances: he knew he could get some splinter of his ideas across to a much bigger audience than would read his essays or even his historical novels. (Of course, that was back when writers still showed up on TV.) Vidal was often called cynical, but, having grown up around politics, he was simply a realist who knew how politics work. He was also a class traitor, a rich white man who was calling out income inequity decades before Occupy Wall Street. The film trots out some loyal talking heads to testify on Vidal’s behalf, including the fallen angel Hitchens, whom Vidal excommunicated when Hitchens supported the Iraq War. By the time Hitchens sat for Wrathall’s camera, he was gaunt and bald from chemotherapy, and delicate sad-bastard piano music plays as Hitchens laments that he hasn’t seen Vidal in years (oh, come on; Vidal and Hitchens would have found this noxiously trite). Soon he would be dead, presumably never having gotten absolution.
The Hitchens anecdote sketches Vidal as a cold cod, a grinch whose heart was four sizes too small. The movie runs some standard diagnostics on him: he hated his mother and lost his one true love, athlete Jimmie Trimble, at age 19 in World War II. The price of being an intellectual titan, the movie seems to reassure us, is going about a long, loveless life with a Trimble-sized hole in it. (Trimble, I guess, is Vidal’s Rosebud.) Wrathall approaches Vidal humbly, hat in hand, his head as empty as his hat. He doesn’t quite know what to make of Vidal; the man was simply bigger and more complex than one trial-size documentary can capture. It is nice to see vintage clips of Vidal the verbal samurai, but we have YouTube for that. The danger with this sort of movie is that our affection for the man will rub off onto the film. But Vidal himself, if he were sizing up this film, would have known how to separate one from the other.