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Film Review

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Regardless of your political slant, anyone interested in the recent history of the United States will be fascinated by Nicholas Wrathall's documentary on Gore Vidal. Vidal, probably unknown to most under 40, but best known to many for his famous exchange with William Buckley in 1968, was a prolific writer (30 novels plus many essays and screenplays) and keen observer of America. Few were more ardent and far fewer more eloquent champions of freedom. Perhaps no one else in the 1960's was more prescient about the growing inequity of wealth and corporate domination of government. Few could match his lightning quick wit.

Gore Vidal was born in 1925 at West Point, into a very distinguished family. His father was the co-founder of three major airlines and Amelia Earhart's great love. His mother, a society figure who was emotionally very distant from him, was a long time lover of Clark Gable and married two more times after divorcing Vidal's father. His grandfather, blinded as a child, was a three term Democratic senator from Oklahoma and became an inspiration to Vidal. This confident, high achieving environment, with the expectation of public service, shaped Gore Vidal. He went to the very best private schools (St Albans and Phillips Exeter), then enlisted and served on a ship in the Aleutians in WW II. He wrote his first novel at 21, Williwaw, about his experiences in the Aleutians. This became a best seller. Two years later he wrote The City and the Pillar, which caused an outcry for its description of homosexual sex. Vidal claimed that the NY Times refused to review it and boycotted his next five books. The City was dedicated to "J.T." which years later Vidal confirmed were the initials of James Trimble, a fellow student at St Albans, who was killed at Iwo Jima. Vidal said Trimble was the only person he had ever loved. Vidal became known for his early, unapologetic voice for homosexuality and in 1969 wrote: "homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, and not a crime". Vidal had an enormous circle of friends, including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Eleanor Roosevelt, Newman, and Woodward campaigned for him during Vidal's unsuccessful run for Congress from Dutchess County, NY, in 1960. In 1982, Vidal ran against then California Governor Jerry Brown for the Senate. As Vidal predicted, a Republican won, but Vidal got a respectable number of votes. Vidal was an intellectual populist and felt that the both political parties were simply wings of the "Property Party". He spoke out against Ayn Rand's philosophy and writings as immature, selfish and immoral. He said that in America we "have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor".

Vidal went to Hollywood to write screenplays, including Ben Hur, Suddenly Last Summer, Billy the Kid, and 13 others. He made a very good income and later moved to the Amalfi Coast where he built a house for himself and his long time partner, Howard Austen. Yet Vidal is best remembered and most influential for his contrarian and left wing political views. He felt strongly that corporate interests controlled Washington and that most congressmen were corrupt in one sense or another. He spoke out repeatedly against American foreign interventions and wars, and went so far as to accuse Roosevelt of knowing that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, an accusation utterly unsupported in fact. Although a close friend of President and Jacqueline Kennedy (she was his cousin in law), Vidal was highly critical of the the Bay of Pigs invasion and of our many interventions in the Americas. He was scathing about Vietnam and accurately predicted that the war could not be won. Vidal loved America but was fearful and convinced that the US was slipping from a republic into an empire. His view of American leadership: "we had our share of bad presidents, but Bush is a fool." His famous encounter on television with William Buckley in 1968 during the Chicago riots is still riveting. Vidal infuriated Buckley who essentially lost the debate. Vidal: "you are a crypto-Nazi". Buckley: "You queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I am going to sock you in the Goddamn face…." is shown in the film (and on YouTube). Vidal could be unforgiving, even in death. When asked for his reaction in 2008 to Buckley's death, Vidal said that he was sure that Buckley was joining all his friends in hell. Vidal was known for his witticisms, often caustic, and they are in abundance here. One commentator compared Vidal to a combination of Mark Twain and Henry James. This barely scratches the surface of Vidal's political views and life that are presented in Wrathall's rich film.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia opens with an elderly Vidal walking slowly through the Rock Creek Cemetery (Washington DC) and sitting on the double grave that he had built for Howard Austen and himself. Vidal's name is next to Austen's, but only with a birth year. Wrathall was taken with Vidal's outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, and felt that he needed to document his life through film, especially since Vidal was then quite old. Wrathall knew a nephew of Vidal, and eventually persuaded Vidal to be filmed. Wrathall's timing was right, as Vidal died in 2012 during production of the film. His use of archival footage is masterful and it is like a lively graduate seminar in 20th Century American history, on film. His commentators are all outstanding, including Christopher Hitchens, Robert Scheer, and Vidal's sister, Nina Straight. Hitchens, in particular, was a long time admirer of Vidal, and thought of himself as the heir to Vidal's political thought. Vidal lived a long, productive life, packed with more accomplishments than any five other public persons, and Wrathall has fashioned a fascinating film about this incredible visionary. My only criticism is that Wrathall doesn't explore Vidal's legacy. Running time is 89 minutes, which seemed far too short for such a life, but what a ride for the viewer. I loved this great film, and unlike most films, will play as well at home as on the big screen. Screening at Opera Plaza, the Rafael (San Rafael), and the Shattuck (Berkeley).

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