“It’s one thing when he says he’s going to commit suicide. It’s another when he actually does it.” explains Juan Thompson, the Good Doctor’s only child. Many of the friends interviewed in Alex Gibney’s GONZO: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (Magnolia Pictures) say that Thompson always said he would do himself in, they all expected it. But the film doesn’t focus on the loss of an American literary giant. No, it is the story of the creation of a beast that drove to the heart of the American Dream in The Red Shark and will forever be remembered for what he found there.
It would have been easy for a filmmaker to focus on Hunter’s decline both in his writing and his physicality and subsequent suicide but the story that is pieced together here through interviews, home movies, TV footage and clips from Hunter’s own collection of cassettes, is a tale of Thompson’s greatest years as a writer. In return, what the viewer gets is a gem of a documentary with very few hiccups.
GONZO opens as Hunter (or a stand-in, rather) sits at his faithful IBM Selectric Typewriter writing a piece in response to the Sept. 11th attacks that he had just watched on television, as most of the country had done. He goes on to write, “Make no mistake… we are at war now, with somebody, and we will stay at war for the rest of our lives… it will be a religious war, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides.” As he did predicting Nixon’s fall from grace in the 1970′s, Dr. Thompson sounds like the Nostradamus of American politics. It is impossible to walk in this muck and now an old warmonger like McCain has a real chance at leading our country. Damn it, Hunter. Where are you when we need your pen?? Sorry about that…. Back to the movie.
The film, narrated by actor, close Thompson friend and portrayer of Hunter on the silver screen Johnny Depp, centers on the glory years of Hunter’s literary output and the birth of Gonzo Journalism. There are many photos and some TV footage of a young Thompson (he still had hair) after the much-celebrated release of his book, Hell’s Angels. Hell’s Angels, which began life as an article for a magazine called The Nation is not the type of work that readers would connect Hunter with today; it is straightforward journalistic reporting with small flashes of what would become Gonzo.
It wasn’t until he took an assignment to return to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to report on The Kentucky Derby for a very short lived paper named Scanlan’s along with the arrival of a British illustrator named Ralph Steadman that the Gonzo style began to take shape. “Hunter wanted to focus on the people of Louisville and the horrible effects of inbreeding.” Steadman says in the film. “Gonzo was born when the evil in me became to come out in the drawings.”
In my opinion, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, is perhaps Thompson’s best article though he believed it to be a horrific failure, his friend Tom Wolfe said. ” It’s a wild and compelling piece of writing and you don’t even get to hear about the race.” From there he goes on to cover the America’s Cup (again with Steadman) but it isn’t until he gets a call from Sports Illustrated to go to Las Vegas and cover a motorcycle race called The Mint 400 that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson achieves immortality. Douglas Brinkley, a Thompson biographer, says that Sports Illustrated rejected the article Hunter submitted and this only encouraged him. “It infuriated him. It made him want to push harder.” Hunter, on a whim, wrote to Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner just to let him know he liked the mag. “I get this letter from the guy that wrote Hell’s Angels so of course I wrote him back and asked if he was doing anything. I asked if he had any free time and if he’d like to write for us. That’s how Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wound up in Rolling Stone.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the all-time great literary work of weirdness, excess and debauchery on all fronts; made even more surreal by Ralph Steadman’s now iconic drawings for the book. ” People remember it for the drawings almost as much as Hunter’s writing. Ralph is crazier than Hunter,” said Jann Wenner with a devilish grin.
Thompson set out to Vegas with his attorney Oscar Acosta, the basis for the Dr. Gonzo character in Fear and Loathing, to find the American Dream but as director Alex Gibney so skillfully shows, Hunter WAS the American Dream.
He triumphed over loss (his father died when Hunter was just 16, his first wife Sandy had five miscarriages and lost one full term baby before Juan was born) to become one of the great political and counterculture writers. In 1971, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become Rolling Stone‘s National Affairs Correspondent. “Hunter had one of the greatest minds for politics I have ever seen, he knew everything,” said friend and former President Jimmy Carter. Out of his correspondence gig came what some people call the best book on politics ever, Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail ’72.
After the first hour or so of Gonzo takes a bit of a down turn, almost coming to a screeching halt. What had been a very entertaining documentary to this point becomes just another history lesson about the McGovern Presidential Campaign with little or no mention of Thompson’s work during that time. As a dedicated Hunter fan, it was easy for me to sit through all the somewhat needless and mundane facts but for the casual Thompson reader, I’m afraid that this would be enough for them to lose interest in the subject and the film.
After Fear and Loathing ’72 something began to happen to Hunter says Jann Wenner, “He stopped writing full-time. I don’t know if it was his marriage (things had gone south with Sandy), drugs or what but he just wasn’t writing great stuff anymore.” Thompson was now more of a star than a writer. As he said in a 1970′s interview, “I can no longer stand in the back and take notes, my anonymity was gone. Hell, I went to cover a Carter press conference and signed more autographs than Carter did.”
He was stuck. He had become a caricature of himself, transforming from Hunter Stockton Thompson the writer into the drug addicted, weirdness junkie alcoholic character he had created, Raoul Duke. He would never be able the break free; as he widow Anita Thompson says, “People always wanted Hunter to be the guy from Fear and Loathing. Of course, he was that guy a little bit but he was also tender and a hopeless romantic. People saw the guns and drugs but few people knew the real Hunter.” With his health and writing prowess failing him, he ended his own life. Juan was in the next room when Hunter fired the shot. “I thought I heard a book hit the floor and then I found him. I took one of his shotguns out and fired three times as a sort of tribute. He did it while I was there so someone he loved would find him quickly, I believe. It sounds strange but it was a warm family moment.” Juan’s mother, Sandy, disagrees. “Some people believe it was a noble, strong thing that Hunter did. Go out on top, ya know. Hunter wasn’t on top and he hadn’t been for a long time. What he did was cowardly.”
Pat Buchanan, super-Republican and former Nixon aide said of missing his late friend, “He was wild, unpredictable but if you needed anything he was there.” As he said those words a motorcycle roared by on the street below. “That’s eerily fitting, isn’t it?”
But it was longtime editor Jann Wenner who seemed to have the hardest time discussing Thompson. “What do I miss?” he said choking back tears, “I can’t talk about this right now” Earlier in GONZO Wenner said of Hunter’s power with the written word, ” With the climate politics are in right now, Hunter could have wielded a pretty heady sword.” Yes he would and with the right eyes, GONZO is the perfect documentary right now about the far less than perfect man named Hunter S. Thompson.