Inherent within almost every type of documentary, be it an alarmist issue picture or a biographical meditation on a person’s life, is a deep sense of bias. Manifesting itself in various ways ranging from the tone with which certain sides of an issue are discussed or if polarizing moments in a person’s life are touched upon or not, very few non-fiction films have the ability to be a truly unbiased look at its central topic.
Take the new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia for example.
Coming to us from director Nicholas Wrathall, this new documentary is a bewilderingly loving account of the life, times and work of the legendary king of American liberalism that was shot just prior to the icon’s death in 2012 at the age of 86. A celluloid love letter to the fallen juggernaut of intellectual discourse, the film (produced in part by his nephew Burr Steers) gets a murderer’s row of talking heads, including Vidal himself, to chime in on the man’s life, work and ultimately his world-changing impact on intellectual discussions. Including names like Tim Robbins and even Christopher Hitchens who went from right hand man to strong opponent when the topic of US foreign policy swept the intellectual world (there falling out isn’t even glanced at here, proving the above point), the film is about as one sided and wholly loving as a biography could imagine being.
Luckily the film is brazenly entertaining, as well.
Given any other subject, a percussively supportive documentary could feel saccharine or entirely manipulative. However, thanks to the energetic nature with which the filmmaker crafts his picture, it is a rocket of a film. With enough archival footage to run a PBS program on and source photographs for an encyclopedia, the film gives the viewer uncanny access to Vidal’s world, from birth to his sad passing in 2012. The interview segments here look almost exclusively at his work in the public eye, with only the more intimate moments coming near the film’s conclusion (there is one segment that is extremely telling that ostensibly start’s the film’s final act of sorts).
Aesthetically, the film isn’t much outside of a powerful piece of editing. The style here doesn’t break much from the typical talking head formula, only to be saved by the use of the aforementioned archival footage, ranging from home photographs to filmed segments of Vidal up against oft-opponents like Norman Mailer. These are about as telling as any of the interview segments, showing that while the film itself paints Vidal as a martyr for American liberalism, he could often be a bully when in discourse with another person.
But it’s Vidal’s show, and it’s a winner. His interview segments here are absolutely fantastic, hinting not only at how densely packed the man’s mind truly was, but what type of bleakly comic sense of satire he spoke and wrote with. Seemingly born with as assured a voice as any sociological commentator has ever been given, Vidal’s moments here are some of the most enjoyable and thought provoking interview segments documentary can offer.
While the tone here may be a bit too over the top in favor of Vidal, particularly in the eyes of those who may not have the same set-in-stone beliefs as the man had, the energy and vitality with which Vidal wrote and spoke is clear as day here. Ever loving but ever moving, United States Of Amnesia is a moving and lively look at one of the great intellectuals of his day. Agree or disagree with his ideas or his discussion style, there has truly never been a man quite like Gore Vidal. and in that a film like this is entirely deserved. It itself may not follow the same constant questioning of the status quo that turned Vidal himself into a mythological figure for the American Left, but what it does have in spades is Vidal’s never wavering energy. For that, it’s worth a watch.