Neither mescaline nor LSD were available at the concession stand of the theater where I saw Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, so I had to make do with a couple of cold Coronas.
This dearth of hallucinogenic enhancement may explain why the film seemed to suffer from an excess of politics and a shortage of laughter. Or maybe not.
Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, his anti-war film about the death of a Guantanamo Bay detainee, seems determined to force the square peg of Thompson idiosyncrasies into the round hole of contemporary liberal passions. It’s an awkward fit. At times, Gonzo seems more like a celebration of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign than of Thompson’s journalism career.
Granted, Thompson was a man of the Left who hated Richard Nixon and deeply identified with the anti-war ’60s counterculture that McGovern’s campaign represented. And Thompson’s hilariously insightful account of the McGovern debacle, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, is one of my favorite political books of all time.
Yet it is hard to justify Gibney’s decision to allow that one episode to gobble up nearly 40 minutes of a two-hour film about Thompson’s four-decade career. The campaign segment repeatedly loses its focus on Thompson and his methods as a journalist, instead focusing on a hagiographic treatment of McGovern.
GIBNEY MAKES OTHER overtly political choices as a director — including a non sequitur insertion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “mountaintop” speech and a split-screen sequence of war footage from Vietnam and Iraq — that add nothing useful to the portrait of Thompson as a writer.
These political choices might be more easily forgiven if they did not result in Gonzo giving short shrift to other aspects of Thompson’s career. The film offers no explanation of how Thompson, who originally dreamed of being a novelist, drifted into journalism as a sportswriter for the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper. There is only passing reference to his formative years as a freelance Latin American correspondent for the National Observer.
Instead, Gibney’s Thompson seems to transform almost instantly from his adolescence in Louisville, Kentucky, into the author of Hell’s Angels, the 1967 bestseller that began as a 1965 feature article for the Nation. The filmgoer who knows nothing of Thompson’s earlier work (Nation editor Carey McWilliams was a fan of Thompson’s reporting in the Observer), is left to wonder why a leading liberal magazine would have picked him for the Hell’s Angels assignment.
The Hell’s Angels segment, however, highlights several crucial elements of the gonzo persona, including Thompson’s daredevil attraction to danger. While covering the bike gang, he began riding motorcycles himself, totaling his BSA 650 in a wreck that sent him and a passenger to the hospital. Immersing himself into the outlaw culture, Thompson also managed to get himself badly stomped by a group of Angels at a weekend party.
HIS HABIT OF MAKING himself the protagonist of his own journalistic endeavors is what set Thompson apart from the rest of the “New Journalism” crowd of the 1960s and ’70s. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood had pioneered the use of the novelist’s method in non-fiction, and Tom Wolfe (who makes several appearances in Gonzo) employed impressionistic literary techniques to capture the ’60s scene.
Neither Capote nor Wolfe, however, made themselves the central character of their own stories as Thompson routinely did. Arguably the best part of Gibney’s documentary is its portrayal of the most distinctly subjective episode of Thompson’s career: His 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power” ticket.
“We seem to be running an experiment that people are watching,” Thompson says during one of the contemporaneous 1970 film clips that capture the bizarre flavor of a campaign during which the writer/candidate shaved his head so he could refer to the conservative incumbent as “my long-haired opponent.”
Running on a platform that promised he and his deputies would freely use mescaline if elected, Thompson lost, but came close enough to demonstrate the strength of the hippie vote in Aspen, presaging the counterculture’s emerging potential as a political force.
From there, Gibney turns to the difficult task of limning the origins of the purely subjective “gonzo” style that Thompson first used in a 1970 article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” then developed most famously in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally published by Rolling Stone in two parts in 1971.
Much of Gibney’s version of what Thompson called “the Vegas book” is told through clips from the 1998 movie version starring Johnny Depp, who doubles as the documentary’s narrator, reading excerpts of Thompson’s works.
Gibney seems to take these classic gonzo pieces at face value, either missing the joke or purposefully ignoring the essential shtick of both the Derby story and the Vegas book, namely, the drug-addled hipster jeering at “square” America.
Ultimately, Thompson’s self-aggrandizement and his notorious substance abuse were his undoing. Fame cost him the anonymity he’d used to his advantage as a reporter. By the mid-1970s, as he explains in one film clip, his fame was such that when he went to cover Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, he signed more autographs than Carter did.
His boozing and drugging took an even greater toll, contributing to a series of botched assignments that most notably included a 1974 trip to Zaire to cover the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, during which a drugged-out Thompson managed to miss the fight entirely.
YET WHILE THOMPSON’S later work never matched the acclaim he’d won for Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or his ’72 campaign coverage, Gibney’s film almost completely ignores the last two decades of the writer’s life.
Gonzo cuts directly from Thompson’s years in the late ’70s hanging out with Jimmy Buffet in Key West to his 2005 suicide at his cabin near Aspen. In doing so, Gibney skips over Thompson’s coverage of the 1982 Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial, his years as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, his final gig as a columnist for ESPN.com, and his long legal crusade to free Lisa Auman, who’d been sentenced to life in prison as an accessory to a 1997 murder.
Gibney’s shortchanging of Thompson’s later career reflects the narrative of the biography (also entitled Gonzo) that Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour published last fall. Wenner’s portrayal of Thompson’s final years as a “humiliating” afterthought angered his widow, Anita, who married him in 2003 after three years as his editorial assistant.
Despite its flaws, Gibney’s film still fascinates, if only because Thompson’s larger-than-life personality was so inherently fascinating. A boring documentary about Thompson would be impossible, and as long as Gonzo remains focused on its subject — rather than indulging in romanticized ’60s nostalgia — it compels attention, even without a brain full of mescaline.
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