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The Real Hunter S. Thompson

The story of the reporter who became the story

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GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON sss Written and directed by Alex Gibney

When Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in February 2005, my immediate, heartless, and thoroughly Hunter S. Thompson-esque reaction was: What took him so long? More than 30 years had passed since his last great book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and he'd since descended into listless self-parody, writing solipsistic columns and burnishing his wild-man legend from the safety of his home in Woody Creek. As the father of "gonzo journalism" Thompson had pioneered a form in which the reporter becomes the story, but his long decline exposed the inherent flaw of such an approach: unless you have a ferocious inner life—which Thompson didn't—eventually you find yourself with no story at all.

Alex Gibney's last two feature documentaries, Taxi to the Dark Side (about the U.S. military's torture of detainees) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, are more important works of journalism than anything Thompson could bring himself to write in his later years. Compared to those movies, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson feels a little soft and boomer-indulgent with its 10,000th rehash of the Nixon years and its soundtrack of trite 60s anthems. Gibney succeeds in dispelling Thompson's cartoonish persona, returning the focus to his writing and celebrating its force and moral clarity. And some of the people interviewed are admirably honest in observing how Thompson betrayed his talent and let down his readers. Yet Gonzo shies away from assessing Thompson's legacy in our modern media landscape, where a degraded gonzoism has only added to the cacophony.

One of the more fascinating clips Gibney unearthed is Thompson's 1967 appearance on the TV game show To Tell the Truth, where celebrity panelists put questions to him and two impostors before a booming announcer asks, "Will the real Hunter Thompson please—stand—up!" The request hangs in the air throughout the movie, and Gibney assembles a complex and fascinating portrait of Thompson from the remarks of family members, editors (Jann Wenner, Douglas Brinkley), colleagues (Tom Wolfe, reporter Timothy Crouse, illustrator Ralph Steadman), and some of the politicians and operatives unlucky enough to have fallen under his merciless gaze (Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter). The witnesses retail all the old stories of blown deadlines and drug-fueled writing binges, but they also reveal a man who cared deeply about his country and his art.

In a sense, though, the real Hunter Thompson stands up only in his own words, generously supplied in voice-over by his solemn acolyte Johnny Depp (who played him in Terry Gilliam's 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The excerpt from Hell's Angels, in which Thompson describes a white-knuckled spin on his Harley, is enough to remind you how high he could soar when the spirit overtook him: "It was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head... but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz... that's when the strange music starts.... The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."

Published in 1967, Thompson's chronicle of his time living and riding with the notorious motorcycle gang made him a paragon of the so-called New Journalism. In 1970 he moved from the margins to the center of the story when he ran for sheriff of Aspen, a quixotic campaign he later chronicled in the Rolling Stone piece "Freak Power in the Rockies." When Thompson covered the Kentucky Derby that same year, the horse race was dispensed with in five sentences, the better to accommodate his take on the carnival surrounding it. By the time he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971, the news had become an annoyance: an assignment to cover a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated gets pushed aside as Thompson and Chicano activist attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (rechristened "Raoul Duke" and "Dr. Gonzo"), out of their minds on drugs, run amok in a Vegas hotel and elsewhere on a "savage journey to the heart of the American Dream."

As Gonzo makes clear, the pitfalls of augmenting journalism with the techniques of fiction emerged when Rolling Stone assigned Thompson to cover George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. In a panel discussion taped years later, Thompson chuckles as McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz calls Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 "the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign." But Thompson's mischief had real consequences when he speculated that Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie, whom he despised, was being treated with the obscure hallucinogenic drug Ibogaine by a shadowy Brazilian doctor. After Rolling Stone published his statement, thinking it too ridiculous for anyone to take seriously, it was picked up by the news wires as a legitimate story. "People really believed that Muskie was eating Ibogaine," Thompson tells a TV interviewer. "I never said he was—said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was. Which was true, and I started the rumor in Milwaukee.... I'm a very accurate journalist."

Gibney spends only about 20 minutes of his two-hour movie chronicling Thompson's downward slide, which some interview subjects charitably ascribe to the writer's unmanageable fame. Jann Wenner, Thompson's long-suffering boss at Rolling Stone, claims he had trouble finding Thompson a story "big enough for his talent," and Thompson himself recalls covering Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential run and being more heavily mobbed by fans than the candidate. After cartoonist Garry Trudeau turned him into a character in Doonesbury in 1974 and Bill Murray played him in the awful comedy Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), he began to feel like a captive to his own persona. "The myth has taken over," he tells an interviewer. "And I find that I'm an appendage. I'm not only no longer necessary—I'm in the way. It would be much better if I died."

Of course the partying also took its toll: one clip of home-video footage, shot in December 2002, shows a puffy Thompson boozing it up in front of his typewriter at 8 AM. Gonzo marks October 1974 as the beginning of the end, when Rolling Stone sent Thompson to Zaire to cover the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Audiotape recorded in the journalist's hotel room captures him raving like a lunatic during a cocaine binge, and instead of covering the event, which he was convinced would be a nonstory, he spent the day at the hotel pool. When the Ali-Foreman bout turned out to be one of the great fights of the century, Thompson came home with egg on his face, Rolling Stone spiked his piece, and as his first wife, Sondi Wright, recalls in the movie, he suffered a crisis of confidence from which he never really recovered.

Gonzo ends on a hollow note, with the lavish memorial Depp staged in Aspen for a crowd of some 280 glitterati and friends. (Per Thompson's request, his ashes were shot out of a cannon.) Though Gibney tries to connect Thompson to the present by drawing parallels between Vietnam and the Iraq war, the fact that Thompson ended his career writing a self-indulgent blog for ESPN raises a more complicated issue: now that the news business is being colonized by celebrity commentators with their own self-serving agendas and ideologues barricaded in their bedrooms, how can we trust the accuracy or impartiality of anything we read or hear? In a way, Thompson's rabid followers in the 70s were just early practicers of "cocooning," or seeking out news that flatters your political biases to the exclusion of news that doesn't. His boiling vitriol and satirical fictions seemed liberating then, but he might have been less free with his words if he'd realized his literary heir would be Ann Coulter. How's that for a savage journey?v

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