Can you tell the story of Hunter S. Thompson without also telling the story of the latter half of the twentieth century? Alex Gibney, director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and now Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, doesn’t seem to think so. For while his movie indeed traces the author’s working history, it also goes into detail about the Hell’s Angels, the turbulence of 1968 and the character and failures of George McGovern and Richard Nixon. All are worthy subjects. But in the great cultural stew of Gibney’s documentary Thompson’s voice gets a bit lost, something that never happened in his prime.
Gibney and Gonzo face several problems. Paramount is Thompson’s own personality. Not his true voice, but the one he cultivated over years as drug and alcohol habits fed into anger and insecurity, and the one he eventually relied upon as his talents diminished. The gonzo Raoul Duke persona (so named in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) is easy to throw up on a screen, but it’s also been done, and it’s not the real Hunter Thompson.
So Gibney tries to find Thompson through his writing. Admirably, he avoids most of the backstory – youth, education, military, even his early novels — to land right at the point where Thompson covered the Hell’s Angels in an article for The Nation, leading to a year spent with the biker gang, a book deal and near overnight fame.
Perfect starting point, really. Dynamic bikers with unexpected counterculture appeal are led by the notorious Sonny Barger, who presents his own vague portrait of karmic redemption by reminiscing about Thompson through a laryngectomy. The Angels’ anti-social behavior mirrors and enables Thompson’s own, up until a point. And through recollection, vintage footage and some only partially cringe-worthy recreation, we see how that put Thompson on the road to Raoul Duke.
From there Gonzo is always in danger of careening right off the rails. The first Fear and Loathing days are conveyed well enough but when Thompson stabs his pen like a flag in the campaign trail of 1972 the life drains out of the movie like it was beaten by bikers. The idealism represented by potential Democratic candidate George McGovern, who ran on a staunch anti-war platform and scored a very unlikely party nomination for president, is crucial to understanding Thompson and his relationship with the national culture and media. He idolized McGovern and even seeded scandalous stories about his rivals, only to face ugly truths when McGovern blew the campaign in the final runup to November.
These things arguably must be told, and thankfully there is a great deal of classic Thompson interview footage in which he can do the work himself. And I respect Gibney’s reluctance to draw an abundance of direct parallels between the ’72 campaign and any current or recent election, or to paint Thompson too overtly as the original political blogger. These points are fully obvious, as is the degree to which the national character has changed in a way that would never allow a man to work as Thompson did, even as we tolerate far more harmful cultural observers who spread apathy through trivia.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 should be, and almost is, the heart of this movie. The book is a perfect microcosm of Thompson’s entire career: his development of gonzo, the celebrity that came crashing down and the influence he was briefly able to extract from fame, followed by the realization of his own inability to truly change the course of events. It’s a grand, poetic and perfectly awful American story. As told in Gonzo, however, 1972 is a boot-heavy slog back through thirty-five dust-covered years.
Constantly attempting to steer the ride back on course is Hunter S. Thompson. Every time the man’s face lights up the screen things do seem to brighten. In his prime the author had a way of skewering left and right simultaneously, usually without looking like he was even trying. There can’t be too much footage of the man in this film; to my deep regret I feel like there was hardly enough.
Some of the strongest cases for Thompson’s potency come from unlikely sources. Ralph Steadman and Tom Wolfe are expected and welcome presences, but I never realized that the Doctor was as involved with Jimmy Carter’s rise to presidential candidacy as is argued here, nor would I have expected to see Carter interviewed today speaking so eloquently about the man.
It’s less of a surprise to see Pat Buchanan, though his willingness to appear here praising Thompson may be the only truly respectable thing the man has ever done. You can draw some measure of a man by the degree to which his enemies are willing to offer their respect, so Buchanan’s appearance speaks to Thompson’s true importance. (Buchanan was most certainly an enemy, to the extent that people will be angry to see his words among the film’s last.)
Regardless, my recommendation is to bail on Gonzo before Buchanan has a chance to end it. Demystification is useful in certain circumstances, but as the film wound on I realized I didn’t need to see Thompson reduced to a mere shell of a man, unable to write and finally driven to take his own life. Because of his faults — because Thompson had both the inspiration and the willpower to make a tool from his addictions, talent and beliefs — he’s a hero worth keeping.
When it’s time to move towards the bar the moment will be perfectly apparent, and I suggest seizing it. You know how this one ends, anyway, and you also know the man himself would be gone long before you were.