Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall
Cast: Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Mikhail Gorbachev, Burr Steers, Sting, David Mamet, Tim Robbins
I went into this documentary about the life of Gore Vidal knowing next to nothing about the man. In reality, I knew less than nothing considering that his name combined in my head as some combination of Al Gore and Gore Verbinski and that I had no idea what the documentary was actually about. I came away not only with some new ideas and a new outlook on some aspects of history and politics, but with a great admiration, fondness, and fascination for the man himself. He was many things in his lifetime – a writer, an actor, a politician, an activist – but he is perhaps most popularly known as an intellectual celebrity (much as Stephen Fry might be considered these days or Oscar Wilde before them). One thing that the documentary does wonderfully is draw you into Vidal’s life, his personality, his views, and intelligence, and makes you want to know more about him. The first thing I did when I got home from Vail was go to the library and look him up – and that’s one of the best results you could hope for when you’re making a documentary about anything.
The documentary tracks Vidal’s life and career, from his birth in 1925 and his upbringing in Washington DC to his career as a writer, screenwriter, television personality, and hopeful politician through to his death in 2012. Director Nicholas Wrathall was fortunate enough to follow and interview Vidal during the last few years of his life, recording his personal thoughts and accounts of events from his past and the state of the world. While the film is about Vidal’s life generally, it does lean toward his rather cynical but likely accurate thoughts on politics and government. He grew up in Washington where his family had a background in politics – his grandfather Thomas Vidal, with whom he was very close, was an important US Senator – he was good friends with John F. Kennedy, and despite his disillusionment with the political system, he ran for Congress (more, as it is explained, as a platform to express his ideas than to actually win). Then, of course, there is Vidal’s penchant for writing historical fiction with a political focus – books such as Burr and Lincoln, which take historical facts and reinterpret them from a different perspective, challenging those accepted facts. It is clear from the documentary that Vidal had a deep love and fascination for his country, but consequently a profound disappointment and ingrained cynicism regarding it.
While this side of Vidal is intensely interesting, Wrathall makes sure to keep it entertaining by highlighting Vidal’s many high profile feuds with literary and political figures (Truman Capote, Normal Mailer, William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens), as well as his lively celebrity social life (hosting elaborate parties at the home he shared with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). All this is peppered with witty aphorisms, delightful displays of logic, and an uncanny prescience for future events. Gore Vidal had a special mentor relationship with Christopher Hitchens before the friendship turned sour, and Hitchens – who felt he was the heir to the Vidal throne – was repeatedly rejected by Vidal who declared that he was the only Gore Vidal, and that he’d keep being Gore Vidal long after Hitchens was gone. Incidentally, the much younger Hitchens died at the end of 2011, less than a year before Vidal.
The documentary holds far too much information and is much to complex to touch on all of it here – and to be honest, Vidal is far to complex to do justice to in a single film or short critique. But the film does its job admirably – it is a relatively short, detailed, and insightful examination of one man’s life, both what that man thinks about it and what those who knew him think about him. It gives us enough information to seek out some of our own about a man who deserves more time and consideration than one film can afford him. It certain peaked my interest in a man I had only heard of by name. I can now count him among my favorite intellectual figures and intend on doing a lot more research before the year is out – and that’s half the battle won by a most thorough, efficient, and entertaining documentary.