A celebrated intellectual, groundbreaking novelist, and essayist without peer, Gore Vidal contained multitudes, and Nicholas Wrathall's loving documentary portrait of the man and his life's work contains enough wit, insight, and eloquent bitchery to make fans out of those lucky enough to be making Vidal's acquaintance for the first time.
Born into high privilege to a father who "dreamed of being the Henry Ford of aviation" and taught his son to pilot a plane by age 10, Vidal followed most naturally in the footsteps of his grandfather, a US senator who overcame his blindness by having his young grandson read him all necessary documents. Vidal came away with a lifelong fascination for the workings of the American political system, which he explored from the inside during two unsuccessful runs for office and investigated from the outside through a lifetime of ferocious writing and commentary.
As the subtitle suggests, Wrathall's film focuses on the decades Vidal spent denouncing the American political machine, from a jarring critique of the presidency of his beloved friend JFK (whose photo Vidal kept framed in his office as a reminder to never again fall for a politician's charm) to endlessly articulate screeds against the "American Empire" and beyond. (Forget 9/11—Vidal believed Pearl Harbor was an inside job.)
What's perhaps given short shrift are Gore Vidal's literary achievements, with his 1968 masterpiece Myra Breckinridge—a crucial work of American literature and a proto–trans manifesto—presented primarily as the source for the notoriously awful film adaptation. But it's tough to fault a director for perceived oversights when considering a life as rich with incident as Gore Vidal's. And the highlights that make the cut are incredible. "It is as natural to be homosexual as it is to be heterosexual," says the (professed bisexual) Vidal in a clip from a late-'60s talk show, his tone that of a lovingly stern nanny speaking to a special-needs toddler; he caps his speech by explaining André Gide's notion of floating sensuality.
Best of all, the pithy public intellectual is caught off-duty and on camera in moments that add great pathos to his perennially spiky words. "It was schoolboy stuff," says Vidal of Jimmie Trimble, his beloved teenage friend who died at Iwo Jima. "In a boy's school, things happen..." His tone is dismissive, but his eyes carefully tell us something he never put down in words.