It's a good rule to be wary of intellectuals who simplify your life, and Noam Chomsky is the left's current star example. His fault-finding take on whatever has just hit the fan is as predictable as a Honeymooners rerun, providing his admirers—of which I'm not one, just in case you're wondering—with a default reaction to pretty much everything they might more usefully think for themselves about.
By contrast, the late Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, rejoiced at his provocative peak in making his readers' lives more complicated by baring the power drives underneath our political pieties, the opportunistically avid circuitry underneath our sexual and familial ones—and, unlike Chomsky, the genuine if snobbishly customized devotion to a Platonic ideal of America underneath his own captiousness. That's why it's dismaying that the people behind the new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, which opened in New York last week, don't and/or can't distinguish between the valuable Vidal of the 1950s, '60s and '70s and the dilapidated one who ended up as just another unusually malicious but otherwise rote Great Simplifier.
Vidal's nephew, Burr Steers, is one of the doc's producers, and he can't possibly be the total chowderhead he comes across as in his on-camera chats with elderly, preening Uncle Gore. The family connection makes Steers' uncritical point of view more than understandable, but what's director Nicholas D. Wrathall's excuse? What would likely appall Vidal about The United States of Amnesia—well, unless his formidable vanity got the upper hand, as it generally did in his later years—is that the movie communicates no sense of history or context. It's a hagiographic one-man show, with "composer" (as opposed to "Music by" wallah) Ian Honeyman's lionizing soundtrack leaving viewers in small doubt that Abraham Lincoln would envy Vidal's belustered place in the national canon.
Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C., of Vidal's boyhood, the glory years of the World War II literary generation, Hollywood, Camelot, and 1968 and all that clatter by as herky-jerkily as funhouse billboards. Innocent newcomers to the whole schmear might conclude that MGM filmed Ben-Hur, Tennessee Williams wrote, John F. Kennedy got elected president and the Vietnam war was fought simply to enable Vidal to say barbed and clever things about them.
As so often with documentaries, the film's panoply of vintage clips and stills is the main attraction, and just about worth it if you're smitten with midcentury razzmatazz. Among other things, I'd only read about Vidal's abrasive face-offs with William F. Buckley when they were hired as adversarial "controversalists" by ABC to chat about the '68 conventions. (OK, so saying that they'd be out of ABC's league today is trite. But I rued yesteryear anyway along with the fact that my parents were CBS stalwarts.) It's fun to finally see the pair in b&w action. Delivered in Buckley's trademark prep-school drawl and accompanied by his usual albino-iguana facial tics, his most notorious quote—"Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn jaw and you'll stay plastered"—comes off every bit as bizarrely as you'd expect.
What's not only bizarre but berserk, though, is Steers's gloss on the duel. "That made his career," he says, meaning Buckley, and Uncle Gore complacently agrees. Say what? At the time, Buckley had been the nation's foremost right-wing intellectual for over a decade. His multiple media platforms—National Review and PBS's Firing Line, plus his widely syndicated newspaper column—made and indeed posthumously still make him more prominent and influential than Vidal ever was, let alone is. It's the equivalent of Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner's nephew claiming that his uncle's 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali made Ali's career, and since Vidal knew better, his plummy assent is grotesque. Poli-sci and English profs alike, be warned: don't put The United States of Amnesia on your next syllabus.
Tellingly, with one notable exception—Christopher Hitchens, by then bald from the chemo for the cancer that killed him—nobody of any literary or intellectual renown pops up here to either endorse Uncle Gore's greatness or, heaven forbid, doubt it. From Norman Mailer to Kurt Vonnegut, his heavyweight contemporaries all predeceased him, but their not always favorable verdicts on Vidal during their lifetimes aren't exactly showcased in neon. As for Hitchens, whom Vidal once named as his "dauphin"—how modest, right?—before they parted company over the Iraq war, he does get to say a few more-in-sorrow words about his onetime role model's decline into conspiracy-mongering crankhood. The dissent is as welcome as a flyswatter at a church picnic.
Still, you know darned well why Hitchens had license. He's the biggest talking head Steers and Wrathall could nab aside from ur-chowderhead Tim Robbins, who seems to be auditioning to play Burr Steers in the epic tale of how The United States of Amnesia reached the screen. Unless I'm seriously misreading the filmmakers' intentions, there's also something gloating about the freeze-frame of Hitchens with his birth and death dates superimposed. Just because Vidal outlived him, does that prove Gore was right and Hitch was wrong?
No surprise, left unexamined are the unseemlier crotchets of the man's later career: the blueblood anti-Semitism that disfigured his attacks on Norman Podhoretz and others, his cheerleading for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a sort of enterprising Tom Sawyer with the wrong methods but the right enemies, and so on. That said, the scenes of an octogenarian Vidal still out there trying to carry on in his own one-man tradition, whatever infirmities and antagonisms obstruct him—his once famously seductive looks now a beaky-nosed and sometimes startlingly unshaven patchwork of hillocks and sags, he's reduced to cane and wheelchair for mobility—are affecting anyway. However much he may have damaged his own legacy with his later intellectual crudities and increasingly forlorn haughtiness, he did have gallantry to the last, and that does deserve some sort of salute.