But this year's class of documentaries is one of Tribeca's strongest ever, partly thanks to a stable of strong individuals.
Tribeca has often vacillated between celebrity profiles ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work") and issue-driven films ("My Trip to Al- Qaeda"). Highlights in the latter category this year include "Big Men," an examination of an oil company in West Africa from "Our Brand Is Crisis" director Rachel Boynton, and "The Kill Team," Dan Krauss' documentary about a platoon in Afghanistan charged with war crimes.
"Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" has the benefit of being one of the most purely entertaining films at the festival, one where simply the documentary's theatrical subject walking down the street is far more captivating than any blockbuster special effect. Chiemi Karasawa's film captures the Broadway icon in her late '80s as she contemplates retirement and departing New York.
"When I showed a rough cut to an audience, they were like, 'We don't want to hear anybody else. There's nothing more entertaining than watching her and listening to her,' " says Karasawa, whose film has added Stritch's "30 Rock" co-star Alec Baldwin as a producer. "At this stage in her life, when somebody is so alive, that's the best material that you can use in a film."
Nicholas Wrathall, director of the Vidal documentary, took a similar approach, mindful that his interviews with the writer at his home in Ravello, Italy — among the last on camera by Vidal before he died last year at 86 — were precious. He originally conceived the film being entirely of Gore. The documentary profiles the voluminous writer's lifelong, passionate, erudite public defense of American ideals.
"It was a great privilege and honor for him to allow me to get close to him, just to have the opportunity to interview him toward the end of his life," says Wrathall. "He was so angry at that point, when the Bush administration was in power. He could not believe that people weren't speaking out as he was."
Questions of legacy are inevitably part of these films. Says Vidal on how he's remembered: "I couldn't care less." In Marina Zenovich's "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic," during an old television interview, Pryor, who died in 2005, says: "I'd like for people to see my picture and laugh."
Zenovich, the director of two acclaimed documentaries on Roman Polanski ("Odd Man Out,""Wanted and Desired"), made the film for Showtime, which will launch a new documentary series in late May.
The film traces how Pryor's life and his constant battles with convention fueled his ahead-of-its-time comedy. As revealing as much of the footage is (including the previously unseen initial, disastrous taping of his 1982 comedy special "Live on the Sunset Strip"), Pryor, as ever, remains impossible to pin down.
"He was being so truthful so much to the point that he was utterly offensive," says Zenovich. "It was just a struggle he had through his whole life, probably because of how he was raised and what he saw in his life. He just couldn't be normal like you and me. His eyes had seen too much and he somehow wanted to speak the truth — and that is so beautiful to me."