The fascinating writings of Hunter S. Thompson get chronicled in this
great, yet sad, documentary
By JAMES DIGIOVANNA
AUGUST 7, 2008
Recently, marine biologists determined that octopuses can learn by
observation, a rare trait in the animal world. Sadly, few humans can
do the same, so we routinely enter voting booths in order to put
vicious criminals in charge of our finances, laws and lives.
Prior to the creation of Fox News, there was a group called "the
press" that attempted to combat this by informing people about the
heinous actions of their leaders. Among those in this "press" was a
drug-addled degenerate named Hunter S. Thompson, who thought it would
be a good idea if the people in charge of the world had a commitment
to truth-telling. For this heresy, the powers that be destroyed him
with fame and its trappings, and now director Alex Gibney (Enron: The
Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side) has put together
a documentary that's ostensibly about Thompson's life.
Ostensibly. Actually, it's more about the America that Thompson
observed and wrote about, a magical place where motorcycle gangs and
hippies and charmingly naïve political candidates were real people,
instead of on-screen characters acted by busty gossip-column fodder
and elderly has-beens.
Thompson first came to prominence writing about the Hells Angels in
the 1960s. He not only rode with them; he was also brutally beaten by
them, which gave him the kind of journalistic cred you don't get by
lobbing softballs at Ari Fleischer. This brought him to the attention
of Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who at one time tried to tie
rock culture to investigative journalism and progressive politics.
That was before the invention of Britney Spears, when Americans were
rioting in the streets because both political parties thought it was
a good idea to lob an obscene amount of napalm at random villagers in
Thompson covered the political beat and produced some interesting
work, first vilifying Hubert Humphrey for being the flip-flopping
coward that he was, and then lionizing George McGovern for being the
political naïf that he was. McGovern earned Thompson's adulation by
proposing a timetable to get out of Vietnam. Luckily, America saw
through his defeatist ploy and elected to stay in Vietnam by
following the Republican plan of losing the war five years and
thousands of American lives later.
Gibney's film does a great job capturing the national weirdness that
allowed Thompson to thrive. Through archival footage and interviews
with those who knew, loved, reviled and got high with Thompson,
Gibney captures what could best be called an external view of the man
who invented gonzo journalism. While there are a lot of interviews
with Thompson himself, who died by his own quivering,
cocaine-and-booze-fueled hand in 2005, the film doesn't seek to get
inside his head so much as it wants to show the effect that he had on
the world and those around him.
Thompson and that world became most deeply entangled in what was
probably his last great stunt as a journalist, running for sheriff of
Aspen, Colo. His platform included tearing up all of the streets and
replacing them with sod, renaming Aspen "Fat City" and promoting the
free distribution of marijuana. Shockingly, this progressive platform
failed to get him elected, though it did cement his strange fame.
The latter section of the film recounts how this fame brought
Thompson a coterie of naked, writhing admirers who inflated his ego
and ruined his work, until he hit such a low of alcoholism and
despair that Jimmy Buffett intervened in an attempt to save him. Yes,
Jimmy Buffett. It's hard to imagine how bad someone's life would have
to be for Jimmy Buffett to come in as the voice of reason, but that
was where Thompson found himself.
The film begins with Thompson's ex-wife saying, "He'd known for a
really long time that he was no longer a really good writer," and it
ends there as well. But in the middle, you can see a man who was
obsessively energetic and weird, and produced some of the most
compelling political prose in American history. And Gibney knows
enough to make that the focus of his story, even though he includes
all of the trappings of Thompson's strange persona: that he went
pig-hunting with a submachine gun, his appearance in the Doonesbury
comic strip as Uncle Duke, and writhing, nubile hippie girls nakedly
sucking the life out of the aging writer.
It's a good documentary, not as hard-hitting as Gibney's Academy
Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, but still a smart way of doing a
biopic without getting lost in the subject. For a look at what
America was, and how it changed into the cartoon that it wanted to
be, Gibney's film picks the perfect subject, and executes it with
clarity, precision and a deep sense of sadness.