Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia isn’t only a profile of the famed literary and political lion, but also a look at 20th-century America filtered through one of its most critical minds. Unfortunately, the unbalanced appraisal of Vidal’s life and work in Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary diminishes the effect of the writer’s engaging dissension of American political policy. Made over the final years of Vidal’s life, United States of Amnesia functions as a last testament of sorts, with Vidal musing over his life and the America he both hated to love and loved to hate, and his biting wit and insight that forged his public persona as one of the foremost progressive thinkers still intact even as he neared death.
The doc, despite failing to overcome its conventional presentation, is abundant in archival footage that Wrathall shrewdly unveils in protracted and uncut stretches of time. Sequences featuring Vidal debating the right-leaning William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention provide both a healthy dose of much-needed fairness (the two intellectuals are natural foils for each other) and perspective; the countering of the archival footage with the newer interviews featuring Vidal reveal that, in over 40 years, Vidal’s sentiments remained unscathed. Wrathall more deftly illustrates his subject’s enduring appeal through this interplay between old and new footage than the director’s parade of talking heads, which all seem strangely forced and overwrought in their hyping of Vidal and his legacy.
Dwelling lightly into his subject’s personal relationships along with the very public persona, Wrathall hints at Vidal’s complexities as a person, though ironically the only version of Vidal presented is the loquacious, opinionated writer and frequent talk-show guest with whom the audience is no doubt already acquainted. In essence, this ultimately amounts to an idea of Vidal, which doesn’t paint a complete picture of the writer. Amid all the lionizing, it’s Vidal himself who humorously provides the most biting rebuke to his own film when he replies that he couldn’t care less about his legacy.