A friend of mine once told me that every young writer goes or went through a Hunter S. Thompson phase. I know I did.
Back in high school, I emulated Rolling Stone's National Affairs Desk chief hard, peppering my adolescent prose with crazy claims of railing against those "brutes" and "dirty animals" (even when I didn't know whom I was talking about). I even longed for that day when I could smoke Dunhills through a cigarette holder just like the "Doctor of Journalism."
What writer my age hasn't thought about writing like the man who invented Gonzo journalism? This was a man who went to Sin City to find the American dream and came back with "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas," that book-length, much-beloved psychedelic hangover. A man who was a writer, yet lived like a rock star. For him, it was sex, drugs and rock-and-roll -- along with truth, justice and the American way, of course.
While there have already been several documentaries done on Thompson (including the Starz documentary "Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride," which sent me to sleep), Alex Gibney, he of the recent Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," comes to the table with the rebel-yelling chronicle "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson."
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Johnny Depp, who did a pretty good impression of Thompson in that movie version of "Vegas," narrates the movie by reading Thompson's writings. (He inexplicably holds a six-shooter while reading in one scene. God bless Depp, but even when he's armed, the boy still looks pretty.) "Gonzo" starts off labeling Thompson as a writer who, despite being past his prime, could still churn out some prophetic work. The movie begins with Depp reading Thompson's ESPN.com column where he predicted the war "fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides" that would come out of Sept. 11. Seeing as how Thompson lived through Vietnam, he already knew how the song was going to go.
Thompson die-hards (like me) will recognize the milestones Gibney recalls in "Gonzo": riding with the Hell's Angels for his first book; running for sheriff of Aspen on the "Freak Power" ticket; finding his "gonzo" voice when he began writing articles for Scanlan's Monthly and Rolling Stone; his 1972 turn as a political reporter, turning in objective-free dispatches from the campaign trail. But Gibney does make an entertainingly comprehensive case for the man's legacy, as he ushered in a new form of journalism that was as subversive as it was entertaining.
"Gonzo" may at times be too congratulatory a doc, citing that Thompson was beloved by everyone even when he began to act like one of those out-of-control beasts he would write about. (Even conservative onetime Nixon aide Pat Buchanan goes on-record saying he dug the man's work.) While the audience will get that Thompson's unorthodox, often proudly fake style of reportage was irreverent and eventually influential, there have to be some purists or detractors out there who thought he was destroying American journalism as we know it. I mean, the man did accuse Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie of making speeches zonked out on Ibogaine. Funny as that sounds, I know there were old-school newspapermen who thought that was a no-no.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation is how family and friends cop to being relieved that he committed suicide in 2005, considering how he talked about doing it for most of his life. Gibney dresses up his self-inflicted gunshot wound not as Thompson euthanizing himself because of painful medical conditions, but as the last act of a man too in love with his country to see it mistreated by the powers-that-be any longer.
And that's what Gibney ultimately wants to get across with "Gonzo." Take away the crazy stunts and hedonistic lifestyle and you'll see someone who was, first and foremost, a patriot. A man who cried when he saw Chicago police officers brutalizing protesters during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and made it his mission to expose the smiling frauds who were out to do this country more harm than good.
Thompson wasn't just the hippest guy in the room. Oddly enough, he was also the most moral.