Gore Vidal (1925-2012) is a beloved iconoclast, maverick, sardonic genius, witty political critic, prophet, social revolutionary, and historian par excellence. He is also disliked and has been vilified for many of these same qualities. There is no in between with this talented, prolific novelist (22 novels), essayist, astute social commentator, playwright, and screenwriter who made his living with his craft and annoyed and entertained thousands on his journey to becoming one of the most prodigious and patriotic of our greatest American writers. If one has read a goodly amount of his work, which I have, I would add he was a fine human being. How many other patricians from that generation and elite upper class background have been advocates for the economically, socially, and educationally disenfranchised? Who else was as brutally honest and sincere? Who else caught hell for his political excoriations, lived to correct the United States’ inaccurate historical record, and transcended his numerous detractors?
Vidal is no longer with us physically, but his being and the most salient aspects of his life with some of his finest and most memorable adages, quotes, and verbal fistacuffs are very much alive in Nicholas Wrathall’s superb documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. The profound quip about our nation is an apt title for this encomium about Vidal’s life and work, for he is the one who coined it.
In the documentary, the amnesia refers to, among other things, mainstream media’s and academia’s inability to properly reference history, engage and inspire thoughtful discussion about our nation’s troublesome past and present, and call down our imperialistic military actions (which began with Thomas Jefferson), actions not worthy of our ideals as a democratic republic. The title holds a sly allusion to how the political system, encouraged by corporate institutions, academia, and the media, has prompted our forgetfulness by not reflecting an accurate historical record in its obfuscation of the truth.
Vidal like many others believed that what journalists and pundits publicized was politically expedient to whomever was in the White House and controlled. The press did not fulfill its mission as one of the checks against overarching government; it did not investigate the hard, difficult issues that Americans needed to understand so we could draw trenchant conclusions and fulfill our social contract as citizens. This breakdown contributed to our amnesia. As a result blindly, we accepted obscure justifications from our political leaders for making war on expedient enemies and allowed them to expand our empire and global domination over the many decades.
Wrathall, who wrote and directed the film, reveals that Vidal’s life has been devoted to exposing the issues which have led to our “amnesia.” He has continually questioned and stood against our political leaders’ penchant to militarize and make wars and, as a side effect, increase the national debt and sacrifice Americans with opaque results. Wrathall identifies how Vidal’s elite roots, upbringing, and influences led to his opinions and the trajectory of his literary career and two-time campaign for political office.
Wrathall pinpoints that Vidal has constantly focused on this main question: Is ours a democratic republic or an imperial empire seeking to extend its borders/influence through war? Aptly, Wrathall includes a most recent clip of Vidal’s brilliant mockery of political leadership when he examines the concept of a “War on Terror” as jingoism. The writer masterfully pulls apart the illogical grammatical construction to reflect the ridiculousness of how such a war conceptually is impossible. Yet it has become a reality conceived by the black hearts of those fomenting it for profit and gain. Amnesia, according to Vidal, has led to our failures as a nation caring for its citizens, and to a large extent, we are all to blame.
This amazing documentary follows the arc of Vidal’s life, a large portion of which he spent battling the nation’s “amnesia,” by writing his American Empire Series in the land which produced one of the greatest empires of all time, Italy. In effect “battling America’s amnesia” was the raison d’etre for Vidal’s historical correction of our whitewashed record throughout much of his writing. Wrathall’s entertaining, well thought out, and succinctly edited film brilliantly indicates this is what made Vidal who he is. The director/writer shows why Vidal engendered the particular subjects of his books and essays and created sardonic, pithy commentary: to awaken us from our amnesia. Wrathall has portrayed Vidal in his latter years as our father figure, one who will not coddle us by being avuncular and ameliorating. With clips of Vidal’s cayenne epigrams, Wrathall has Vidal shake and irritate us. Just as he pounded out the storm warnings on his ancient typewriter producing his volumes about America’s history, Wrathall’s selection of film clips with Vidal’s pointed maxims reminds us of where we came from and where we are heading, unless we correct ourselves.
The documentary is memorable in how the filmmaker allows Vidal’s perspective to clearly, sagely hit its bullseye; he reveals that Vidal recognizes that we may have traveled through light years of progress but actually we have gone nowhere and, in fact, are in a retrograde in our black hearts. To Vidal, politics is politics whether it is the Tories and Whigs or the Republicans and Democrats; whitewashing, brainwashing, corporate lobbying, or elite money; it’s all the same hypocritical game of gaining empire with no difference between political parties. Wrathall’s choices from the film archives are highly amusing and deeply relevant for us today. Always, Vidal’s wry, laconic turns of phrase encourage us to open our eyes and think. In this always stimulating film compendium of the very best of who Vidal was and is, Wrathall allows this engaging icon to inspire us as American patriots. If we open our eyes, we will not only remember, we will get the historical record straight. It’s all there, if we only search it out.
It is to Wrathal’s very great credit that he exhaustively chronicles Vidal’s life through decades of film footage, clips of news programs cobbled together with his commentary at seminal periods of Vidal’s life, and his own recent commentary including clips of interviews with Vidal over the last seven years. Culling through this mammoth amount of information, the filmmaker has selected; in his choices he allowed the truisms of our American history, politics, and culture to be laid bare through Vidal.
The film is also an account of Vidal as a heroic, stalwart American. Wrathall has unleashed Vidal in all his glory, bitterness, love for his country, and deep despair of it. The feelings evoked echo and reverberate to our hearts. From the past to the present what Vidal has been saying for most of his life about our nation and its leaders has been accurate. Wrathall puts before us a Vidal who aphoristically intones what we are losing as Americans: our constitutional rights, freedoms and privileges, the death and maiming of our young men with continual war engagements promoted by the Lords of War, and our loss of privacy and of due process to a pernicious national security state.
But we have forgotten. Will we awaken? This is nothing new; with the creation of the first political parties, to today, nothing much changed. That is why Vidal continued to batter away at revisionist history books and academics who took umbrage with his presentation of our “great” icons of American leadership and labeled Vidal a revisionist. This was a complete irony, for as he proved time and again, mainstream historians had greatly revised and misrepresented America’s founding fathers, our political leaders, and our history to present an ideal which never existed. We have been and are deluded.
At the end of the film Wrathall reveals the greatest truth about Vidal: his heart was broken again and again by our country’s failure to achieve the possibility of its own greatness. Vidal, after all, was a conflicted and cynical idealist. Though he made a place for himself as a quasi ex-patriot in Italy where he wrote about the realities of what he perceived about his country, he was never gratified. His perspective galled him to no end, but it also gave him the ammunition to make cannon fodder of America’s empire builders, our real enemies, whom he cannonaded with the power of his words. This has been his finest gift to Americans: his call to wake up and fulfill our mission as enlightened citizens who are worthy of public servants and fine leaders, leaders who move the nation forward to secure the constitutional principles of a democratic republic.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00C652YYM]