The Devil’s Angel
It never got weird enough for Hunter S. Thompson
by Jason Blair
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON: Directed by Alex Gibney. Cinematography, Maryse Alberti. Music, David Schwartz. Narrated by Johnny Depp. Magnolia Pictures, 2007. R. 118 minutes.
|Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
The “S” stood for Stockton. The rest of the biography you know. At least, we think we know Hunter S. Thompson, the daredevil journalist who never met a drug he didn’t like, for whom guns were a great comfort and for whom a day without cigarettes was like a day without sunshine. Hunter S. Thompson undoubtedly was a maverick reporter, perhaps the first to work from the inside out by actually placing himself within his stories, a feat he accomplished by a process of conspicuous infiltration — the Hell’s Angels being one example — and a steady diet of intoxicants. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” he once said, “but they’ve always worked for me.”
What emerges from Gonzo, the fine new documentary by Alex Gibney (an Academy Award winner for Taxi to the Dark Side), is a subtler, more frustrating and more interesting Thompson than the one we think we know. His campaign for sheriff in Aspen, Colo., for example, until now familiar only to Aspen residents of that era, gets a thorough airing here, revealing Thompson at his lucid and passionate best. (Nevertheless, he lost.) Also explored is Thompson’s connection with Ralph Steadman, the maverick illustrator whose partnership with Thompson changed the course of Steadman’s art forever. The creation of Thompson’s major works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, are also given the depth they deserve, including Thompson’s coverage of the noble but doomed George McGovern campaign, in which Thompson might be called a participant as much as a reporter. In Gonzo, there’s little time for origin stories. There’s no fat. Just flesh and bone.
When Thompson was firing on all cylinders, as he was during much of the 1970s, he ran down liberals and conservatives alike. In print — in particular, in Rolling Stone — he called the candidates as he saw them. In his words, Hubert Humphrey was a “treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler,” and Nixon, whom Thompson loathed more than anyone, was “America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde” and the man who “speaks to the werewolf in us.” (For its brevity, though, it’s hard to surpass “greedy little hustler” for the definitive coinage of Nixon.) For Thompson, everything was on the record. There were moments of more gossip than journalism, like Thompson’s self-fulfilling campaign against Ed Muskie, a candidate he despised to such a degree that he started a rumor Muskie was on drugs. Nobody, but nobody, would have dared such a thing. Muskie took the bait and got hooked.
Gonzo is weakest in its opening sequence, see-sawing toward a self-consciously prophetic tone by re-enacting Thompson’s dispatch after 9/11. Johnny Depp, a spirited narrator, appears onscreen, which I can tolerate. Reenactments of Hunter I can’t, reenactments belonging to the History Channel and the occasional Errol Morris film. Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan appear, the latter of whom clearly is fond of Thompson, a fact which somehow surprises me. Also contributing are Jimmy Buffet, George McGovern and Gary Hart. Hart, a friend of Thompson’s, seems best to have understood the journalist, his many shortcomings as well as his many strengths.
Overall, Gonzo is brilliant. It’s definitive and brash, boasting volumes of unreleased footage and new interviews about Thompson with seemingly everyone that mattered to him. Thompson wasn’t the best writer of his generation, but he arguably was the best writer to cover politics in the ’60s and ’70s, which by itself makes him essential. He knew evil when he saw it. He didn’t blush at perversity. But most of all he wasn’t afraid. His decline, when it came, was sudden: a missed assignment in Zaire that cost him his confidence, arguably for good. Thus I don’t buy the argument that we need him more than ever, as some in Gonzo maintain. He hadn’t written anything significant for years. I just wish he could be around to see us throw the current werewolves out.
Gonzo opens Friday, July 18, at the Bijou.