Film festivals are often littered with documentaries that fall into one of two camps: hard-hitting political films, or intimate character studies.
But Nicholas Wrathall’s “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” which had its world premiere on Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a hybrid of the two. Or maybe it’s a political film disguised as a character study, or vice versa.
Whatever the appropriate label may be, “Gore Vidal" zeros in on the novelist, essayist, screenwriter, media personality, social gadfly and savage political and social critic who passed away in July 2012 at the age of 86.
But for the film’s entire 89-minute running time, the most notable words out of Vidal’s mouth are his stinging critiques of politics and government in the United States.
“I don’t see myself as his biographer,” said Wrathall in a Q&A that followed the screening. “I was inspired by the politics.”
Those politics are harsh, confrontational and often vicious, as Vidal chronicles what he sees as the U.S. slides from being a republic to an empire. A son of privilege himself, he traces the beginnings to the Harry Truman administration, when the draft was instituted after World War II. "Truman militarized the country," Vidal says in the film as he decries the fact that the U.S. has been in "the pursuit of empire" since then.
Vintage clips show that from the 1950s or ’60s, Vidal was alarmed about how politics had become dominated by money; in footage of his witty but savage debates with William F. Buckley in 1968 (vicious, but miles more literate and entertaining than anything that passes for political discourse these days), he points his finger at the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
To Vidal’s mind – and certainly to the minds of most of the audience at the Loews Village 7 – those problems only grew worse as time went on. And while he doesn’t like it, he was proud of his prescience: "The four most beautiful words in the English language: 'I told you so,'" he says at the end of the film.
Vidal does tell us so over and over throughout "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia." He spares few in the public eye: John F. Kennedy may have been a good friend to Vidal, who was related to Jackie Kennedy, but the writer doesn’t hesitate to call JFK “one of the most disastrous presidents we’ve ever had.” Jimmy Carter “shot himself in the foot every day,” Ronald Reagan was “the best cue-card reader we could find” and George W. Bush was “a goddamned fool.”
And while a thin, feeble Vidal is shown watching Barack Obama’s victory speech in 2008, he doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for a man, he points out, who is after all a politician in a system where “we sell soap and presidents in the same fashion.”
Wrathall (right) organized his film around pithy sayings of Vidal’s, and this one may sum up his view of politics: "The U.S. was founded by the brightest people in the country and we haven’t seen them since."
The movie isn’t all political vitriol, though that's the most entertaining part. It begins with a visit to the grave of Vidal’s longtime (non-sexual, he insists) partner, companion, Howard Auden, where Vidal points out his own tombstone, which has the year of his birth but is just waiting for the year of his death to be engraved.
As he shows the stone, Vidal rails against the inaccuracy of a previous biographer – so when the film shifts to telling the writer’s life story as related by his literary executor, an admirer of Vidal’s could be forgiven for being a little skeptical of all the details.
But "The United States of Amnesia" is less about details than about the passion of a man who, in between writing movies like "Ben Hur" and historical novels like "Burr" and "Lincoln," railed against religion and military intervention and inequality.
Before Vidal died, though, Wrathall (above) said, "Gore also saw hope. Right near the end of his life, he was excited by the Occupy movement, by seeing young people out in the streets."
As for what its subject would think of the film, the movie’s final scene might sum that up. An unseen interviewer asks Vidal, "What do you think your legacy is going to be?"
Vidal sneers, looks in the camera and speaks slowly and distinctly. "I couldn’t care less."