When Christopher Hitchens died, words failed me as I tried to describe him to a friend who didn’t know who he was. Of course, I managed to say he wrote for Vanity Fair. (That is, after my obvious first question: “How can you not know him?”) Yes, he was a journalist, but there were so many other facets to his career that brought him more notoriety than any ol’ person with a byline.
I’ve since become familiar with terms such as “cultural critic” and “polemicist,” words that also apply to Hitchens’ arguable godfather, the late Gore Vidal. Yet I went into Nicholas D. Wrathall’s debut feature, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia fairly ignorant of this multidimensional provocateur. And as the documentary began drowning in his achievements, I kept thinking, “How could I not know him?”
A list of all of Vidal’s professional roles, from novelist (with the publication of his first book at 21) to politician (running for Congress in 1960) to commentator on the state of the U.S. government (a lifelong compulsion till his death, in 2012, at the age of 86), would be not only tiresome to compile but likely incomplete. So let’s say this instead: Vidal had a mouth, and he knew how to use it.
Archival footage of Vidal’s television appearances, photos of his mingling with 20th-century glitterati, and interviews with the man are punctuated—a little too often—with his Oscar Wildean bons mots. Every element showcases Vidal’s quick wit, eloquence, and astoundingly insightful, often prescient editorials on whatever hot topics the zeitgeist offered. There are also documentary-requisite comments from fans and colleagues (including Tim Robbins, literary executor Jay Parini, and, naturally, Hitchens) that tend toward drooling (except, naturally, Hitchens).
The cumulative effect is worship overload. Vidal was undoubtedly an impressively well-rounded and accomplished human being—though it should be noted that he was born into privilege—and he all but says so in the film. If would be surprising if he ever admitted he was wrong. And while such confidence may have drawn people—a lot of people—in, it’s nearly unpalatable here. Vidal spoke regally (a missile was a “miss-aisle”) and expected to be regarded that way, too.
The United States of Amnesia is most interesting when Vidal talks politics. He mockingly mimics George W. Bush, or “Junior,” accusing him of starting the Iraq war because “he wanted to go, ‘Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang.’” Vidal was scornful of the sullied mechanisms of politics and government power trips like the Patriot Act. “We are totally policed,” he says. “This is contrary to everything in our Constitution.” Did I mention he was a liberal?
Wrathall’s hagiography is a fine introduction to viewers unfamiliar with the iconoclast, and it will especially resound with the left. Vidal’s second novel, The City and the Pillar, is alleged to be the first to explicitly depict a same-sex love affair. He championed the idea that homosexuality is natural: “The difference between a homosexual and a heterosexual is about the difference between somebody who has brown eyes and somebody who has blue eyes.” (Though he was bisexual, the author claims that his long-term relationship with Howard Austen wasn’t physical.)
Vidal’s intelligence is undeniable, even if you disagree with his opinions. But when raised on such a high pedestal, a famous contrarian is likely to inspire knee-jerk contrarianism himself.