Gone with the Gonzo 

Remember when journalism was cool and everybody wanted to be a reporter?

With Hunter Thompson, there's always the danger that anyone writing about him will accidentally begin to write like him. It's probably something psychological, like a Freudian slip. They start throwing in coinages like "screed" or "kinghell" and before you know it, it's a bad parody. Come to think of it, there's never been a good parody of Thompson because most of his writing, particularly his later stuff, is pretty sloppy to begin with.

The reason he's so important is not that he was a resourceful reporter or a prose stylist — he was arguably both — but that he embodied indelibly a certain time and place in American pop culture, and he completely owned his turf. Aside from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or, arguably, such columnists as Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko, no one is more responsible than Thompson for convincing a gullible phalanx of otherwise bright young people, against all logic, to become "reporter/adventurers" and take up writing for print publications. For this he should have been hanged.

What a cruel ruse, making it seem that slaving for chump change, writing stories that fewer and fewer people were inclined to read, on behalf of a capricious claque of martinets and their corporate masters, all striving desperately to salvage a profit in an ailing industry, might somehow be fun. And yet in Thompson's heyday in the '70s and '80s, before we learned the awful truth, everyone wanted to go Gonzo. Everybody wanted to show up stoned with his crazed Samoan attorney and the Cadillac full of dangerous drugs and get the real story, the one the editor knew nothing about, and to finally show up the hustlers and liars. And now they're all teaching and Thompson is safely dead. Damn Thompson.

Alex Gibney evidently doesn't blame the man very much for all that. Gibney's pulsating, celebrity-studded documentary tribute to Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, candidly goes out of its way to publish the truth rather than the legend about the one it calls the most popular journalist of his time, but in the end the legend triumphs.

The image of Thompson aka Raoul Duke, eyes glazed, decked out in his trademark aviator shades, ball cap, hunting jacket, Bermuda shorts, and cigarette holder, 12-gauge shotgun in one hand, beer bottle in the other, defying his interview subject to try to wriggle out of this one — it's just too powerful. As writer Tom Wolfe observes, Thompson the political reporter became "trapped in Gonzo." So we might as well lie back and enjoy it.

It was the Vietnam war that spurred the freelance writer, an Air Force veteran from Louisville, Kentucky, to jump from the first-person reportage of his 1966 book Hell's Angels ("In a nation of frightened dullards, there is a shortage of outlaws") to Rolling Stone magazine and thence the flowering of Gonzo. There's always a war going on in America. Thompson brought it home hard. On top of his lifelong admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, he invented another persona, a maniacal investigative reporter with a guns and drugs problem. He was the sort of guy who could rap about football with Richard Nixon on a ride to the airport one day, and hang out with the strippers at San Francisco's O'Farrell Theatre the next.

His best book, 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, changed the literary landscape immediately. College students and hippies ate it up, as did such big-league communicators as Wolfe and Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, a few of the film's admiring talking heads. Thompson and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner (who gets emotional while reminiscing on camera) had the bright idea of having the writer continue his recreational-drug-fueled journey into the dark heart of America with Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, and the legend was born. Illustrator Ralph Steadman's grotesque, hallucinatory images were a major component of the newly branded Gonzo Journalism. Thompson's partner in crime responded well to the whiskey and amyl nitrate: "The evil came out of me in the drawings."

Gibney's documentary spends more than half its time covering the Fear and Loathing years into the late '70s. That's a wise decision, because the decline set in soon after Thompson began disingenuously complaining: "When I appear to cover a story I automatically become a part of it." The implication is that Thompson got too zonked to write. His work habits drove editors to despair. The 1972 presidential race segment goes on far too long, despite the commentaries by George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Rolling Stone colleague Tim Crouse. Leave it to Democratic pol Gary Hart to opine that there was "an infantile aspect to Hunter" that didn't square with the hard realities of politics.

Everyone knows stories from Thompson's coaster years: the blown coverage of fellow Kentuckian Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" (Thompson gave away his tickets to the fight and took a swim in the hotel pool), his Doonesbury Uncle Duke action figure notoriety, raucous appearances before university audiences ("They always wanted him loaded and nuts," said one editor), the parade of worshipers — including the film's narrator, Johnny Depp — to the ranch at Woody Creek, the gunshots in the night, etc. Gibney's film pretty much skips the '80s and '90s, tying it up with Thompson's last burst of malicious enthusiasm, at the election of George W. Bush in 2000. In 2005, in what his son Juan Thompson describes as "a warm family moment," the writer emulated Hemingway by killing himself with a gunshot in the head. His funeral spectacle at the Owl Farm featured a Burning-Man-style exploding structure.

Gonzo was co-produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Landmark Theatres/HDNet/Magnolia Pictures kingpin Mark Cuban, but it's really Gibney's show — he wrote the screen story, produced, and directed with the same basic thrust and loyal-opposition integrity he displayed in his other docs. What a filmography he has: Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, No End in Sight, Who Killed the Electric Car?, The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Alongside Gonzo, that's a full six-pack of the most exhilarating documentaries of the past few years. Their common denominator, the confrontational act of telling truth to power, was also Hunter Thompson's guiding light, so it's fitting that Gibney should compose this melancholy-but-randy valentine to lost times. Thompson is dead but his skepticism survives. In the land of endless corruption, the muckraker is king, if only in the moral sense.

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