This lion of American liberalism died last year at the age of 86. He was a wit, a raconteur, a succesful author, a man of unimpeachable intelligence and a fearless fighter for freedom and justice. He was also a bit of an intellectual bully, and some of the broader ramifications of his liberalism led him into highly dubious areas (just read his comments on the Polanski rape case). Not that any of that appears in this documentary: co-produced by Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers, ‘United States of Amnesia’ comes not to bury Vidal but to praise him right to the rafters.
And there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way: Vidal’s observations on everything from civil rights and JFK to Afghanistan and Iraq are informed, wise and often bleakly funny, while the snippets of his 1968 television debates with right-leaning loonball William F Buckley are downright hilarious. The stars queue up to fawn over Vidal, from celebrity chums like Tim Robbins and Sting to intellectual rivals such as Norman Mailer and Christopher Hitchens, who Vidal proudly proclaimed as his ‘heir’ before they fell out over US foreign policy.
But the film’s blanket refusal to question its subject feels not only cowardly, but antithetical. Here was a man who questioned everything (except, perhaps, his own rectitude); who opened every dark door and peered inside. By refusing to do the same with their subject’s life and opinions, the filmmakers do him a disservice.