Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia: Tribeca Review

This superb documentary captures Gore Vidal in all his ever-articulate glory.

Nicholas Wrathall's documentary chronicles the celebrated life and career of the late author and political gadfly.

It’s not diminishing the cinematic accomplishment of Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia to suggest that filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall had an easy job. His subject was such an engagingly brilliant and funny provocateur that all one had to do was point a camera and let him speak for fascination to result. Much of this documentary about the late writer and liberal icon consists of interview footage, and that’s more than enough. The film, which received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, should enjoy healthy specialized theatrical bookings before a long life in ancillary.

As the film makes clear, Vidal, who died in July, was born into politics. His grandfather was an Oklahoma senator who served with distinction despite having gone blind at an early age. And his father served in the Franklin Roosevelt administration as director of air commerce, enabling his son to have the opportunity to fly a plane at the tender age of 10.

Bookended by poignant segments in which Vidal is seen visiting his future tomb -- “I know quite a lot of people underground here,” he comments while looking at his gravestone -- the documentary chronicles the author’s life and career in chronological fashion. Interspersed throughout are onscreen examples of his witty epigrams, such as, “Whenever a friend succeeds I die a little” and “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

That latter part was certainly true, as many of the film’s highlights are clips from his TV appearances, including his celebrated debates with William F. Buckley (the intellectual equivalent of the Ali-Frazier bouts) and his infamous joint appearance with Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show.

Vidal enjoyed literary success with his first novel, published when he was just 19. But it was his second, The City and the Pillar, that truly established him. Describing it as the first American novel to depict homosexual sex explicitly, the author proudly recounts receiving a letter from sex researcher Alfred Kinsey thanking him for his “work in the field.”

The film also focuses on such areas of Vidal’s versatile literary career as his teleplays and screenplays; such notable theatrical successes as The Best Man; his acclaimed series of historical novels, including Burr, which he proclaims his finest work; the controversial Myra Breckinridge; and the anti-Bush administration screeds he published in the wake of 9/11.

Vidal is never more fascinating than when talking about politics, especially his run for Congress in 1960 and his 1982 California Senate primary race against Jerry Brown. One of the more priceless clips on display features Vidal mercilessly cutting Brown to shreds as his opponent silently and glumly looks on.

Among the many interview subjects are the late Christopher Hitchens, whom Vidal once considered his literary heir apparent before turning against him, and journalist Robert Scheer, who sums it up best when he points out that Vidal “had a great shit detector.”

(Tribeca Film Festival)

Production: Amnesia Productions

Director/screenwriter: Nicholas Wrathall

Producers: Nicholas Wrathall, Theodore James, Burr Steers

Executive producers: Nicholas Wrathall, Erik Nelson, Mike Barnett, Dave Harding, Damon Martin, Andrew Kortschak, Walter Kortschak, Chad Troutwine

Directors of photography: Derek Wiesenhahn, Joel Schwartzberg, Armando De’Ath

Editors: Suresh Ayyar, William Haugse, Rob Bralver, Derek Boonstra

Not rated, 89 minutes.