What can you say about the legendary Hunter S. Thompson that hasn't been said a thousand times before? He was a red Cadillac speeding down the highways and byways of the American Dream, his turbo-charged prose fueled by alcohol and.... Well, let's just look at the shopping list for Thompson's excursion to Sin City, subject of his hallucinatory masterpiece, 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers...and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls." What, no Cheetos?
Drugs were, of course, Thompson's muse. And somehow, while ingesting a veritable pharmacopoeia, he managed to send back reports from the frontlines of a war only he truly understood, the war between what the country aspired to and what, in its darkest moments, it stooped to. His literary approach was an offshoot of the so-called New Journalism, which used fiction techniques in the service of fact. Thompson added to that mix a batch of psychedelic mushrooms. Reading him was like being absorbed into his bloodstream, coursing through his brain. And for many people, that's how it felt to be alive at that time - life as a not-always-unenjoyable psychotic episode. Thompson got it all down on paper, grabbed hold of the zeitgeist and held on for dear life.
And here, like an acid flashback, is the whole thing all over again. Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson is one of those documentaries that capture their subjects so perfectly there's no need to look further (except to read the sacred texts that Thompson left behind). It's thorough, conscientious and a hell of a lot of fun. It's also a little gonzo, tripping the light fantastic as it takes us through the ups and downs of a life that was all about uppers and downers. Gibney has accumulated so much footage - TV appearances, home movies, dramatic reenactments - that there's a danger of sensory overload, which seems quite in keeping with Thompson's imagistic imagination. But it's all beautifully strung together, a controlled frenzy.
Thompson famously got his start by playing Boswell to the Hell's Angels, and Gibney takes us all the way through this tragicomic episode, enchantment curdling into disenchantment on both sides. What's interesting, though, is how determined Thompson was to shimmy up the greasy pole, achieve fame, if not fortune. He even made an appearance on To Tell the Truth, where Kitty Carlisle grilled him on the fine points of biker culture. And it's tempting to view his whole career as a series of Maileresque advertisements for himself, but Gibney has a more poignant thesis: that Thompson was the last of the romantics, an American Don Quixote, with a bad case of the screaming meanies. His utopia? Early-'60s San Francisco, where everybody walked around with flowers in their hair. Alas, it didn't last.
And as it faded away, like a dream, Thompson increased the dosage on his self-prescribed meds. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a last-stop-on-the-way-to-oblivion kind of book, a publishing tour de force. But it was Thompson's reportage on the 1972 presidential campaign that's had the most lasting impact on the way journalism is practiced in this country. Refusing to be just another boy on the bus, Thompson took us behind the scenes behind the scenes, where everything was revealed to be a circus sideshow. And Thompson was both spectator and ringleader, once starting the rumor that Senator Muskie was addicted to Ibogaine, a drug you won't find anywhere, since he made it up. A hopeless romantic, Thompson fell hard for McGovern, but Nixon - the Imperial Wizard of his nightmares - won in a landslide.
Thompson once had a back-of-the-limo chat with Nixon about football as the candidate made his way from campaign stop to campaign stop. And one of the surprises of the documentary is what a relative insider Thompson was, a press pass from Rolling Stone apparently a ticket to ride. George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, even Pat Buchanan, who was one of Nixon's speechwriters at the time - they all speak fondly of Thompson, as if he was little more than the class clown disrupting the teacher's lesson plan. But he was more than that. He was the kid who brought a sawed-off shotgun to school with him one day, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail was his extra-credit theme paper, a blow-by-blow account of what The Daily Show, had it been around at the time, would have called "Indecision '72."
It was Thompson at the height of his powers, and as the documentary makes clear, he never soared quite so high again. Nixon's impeachment hearings came and went without Thompson putting his stamp on them, and although he was present at the Ali-Foreman fight, one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports, he failed to get the story, literally hanging out by the pool. What happened? Who knows, maybe the drugs caught up with him. Or maybe his legend did. Thompson admits, more than once, that not only had he become superfluous to the comic-strip character he'd created, he was in the way. And when Garry Trudeau turned him into an actual comic-strip character - Fear and Loathing's Raoul Duke, with the aviator glasses and the cigarette holder and the bottomless appetite for drugs - it may have been the last straw.
Whatever it was, Thompson spent the next 30 years at his Colorado retreat, shooting his guns and firing off the occasional missive. But it was never the same; the world went on without him. On the other hand, his leaving of the world caused a bit of a stir. Suicide had never been far from his thoughts, and one fine winter day in 2005 he blew his brains out while talking to his wife on the phone, his son and grandson in the next room. Fitting end or total cop-out? His son, Juan, quite sincerely refers to it as "a warm family moment," meaning that it was exactly what Thompson wanted, to end it all while surrounded by his loved ones. To the rest of us, it at least seems fitting that he went out the way he came in, guns blazing. But who wouldn't like to have him around today, high as a kite, behind the wheel, racing toward the dark days ahead?
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson, Sundance