Writer, director and producer Nicholas D. Wrathall’s biopic Gore Vidal – the United States of Amnesia, is both a historical overview of infamous writer and social critic Gore Vidal, and a deeply personal journey across the life of an unrepentant intellectual and one of the driving characters of the 20th Century.
Gore Vidal has been a thorn in the side of the establishment for over six decades, known for over 22 novels, plays and essays, best known for his obsession with American political life. Called “the real most interesting man in the world,” Vidal is equally well known for his scathing and erudite wit (“Never offend an enemy in a small way”) and keen understanding of the machinations of power (“the dream of every society is total control”).
Wrathall has done a splendid job weaving together historical footage and extant interviews with Vidal, and bringing some of his many quotes to the screen with moving and clever typography to emphasize his work directly. He also coaxes out the humor in Vidal’s wit, balancing out his erudite political discourse in some candid interviews towards the end of his life.
Vidal was born into wealth in the 1920s and explains that the only conspiracy of the elites is that they “all think alike.” At an early age he ‘defected’, working for his blind grandfather, a senator, whom he idolized. Vidal’s one romantic love was with James Trimble, another boy at boarding school, “where these things happen”, but after Trimble died in WWII, Vidal seemed to harden his realpolitik view of the world and the monied elites that profited from global conflict.
Vidal’s first book, about the horrors of war and his own experiences therein, was published in 1946 when he was just 19. His second book in 1949, The City and the Pillar, was the first to depict homosexual sex explicitly, and in later years he became a fierce intellectual defender of human sexuality (“[Homosexuality] is a completely natural act from the beginning of time”).
Director Wrathall expertly counterpoints choice interview out takes from Vidal over the years with intimate interviews with him about his personal life. Blackballed by the NYT for his homosexual views, Vidal turned to Hollywood where he became a successful contract writer for MGM (famously writing Ben Hur). Later in his career as an essayist and intellectual critic he turned his pen towards politics and the power structure behind the façade of America.
It’s here that Vidal shines, in the truth of his words and pointing the finger at the powers that be. Some of the most moving scenes in the film recount Gore’s dramatic political views in TV interviews, which parallel the tumultuous history of the 1960s and uprisings, as with the 1968 Democratic Convention. Vidal became a ‘celebrity intellectual’ for the rest of his career, and contributed a vital voice to the opposition of the United States military-industrial-political domination. It was, Vidal claimed, the ‘Empire’ that swallowed the Republic. (Whenever I want to know what the United States is up to, I look into my own black heart.”)
Writer-director Nicholas Wrathall has previously worked on Gardens of the Night (2008) and The Work of Director Chris Cunningham (2003), but it is with this superb bio-pic that he has truly come of age.