There is one question that remained after the death of Hunter S. Thompson. Was his suicide the ultimate act to cap a life of utte defiance, the final middle finger to a rotten world that is irrecoverably lost among madmen and perverts? Or was blowing his brains out the only recourse for a burn out who partied too hard, eventually dulling his razor sharp wit on years of alcoholism and drug abuse. Alex Gibney’s Biopic asks this question.
Gonzo, the latest politically-charged documentary from the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, No End in Sight, and Taxi to the Dark Side, continues the tradition of scourin the American Political landscape through the lens of one particular stain on the carpet. In this case it’s the cigarette burns and whisky stench of possibly the most legendary American Journalist of the modern age—a man who often cast a wake of chaos as wide as those of the figures about which he wrote.
What it’s About.
Here’s a quick synopsis for those unversed in Hunter S. He grew up your basic bad child in a broken home, spent some time in the military, married young, and paid his bills by penning articles for whatever publication would take them. He landed a gig writing about the Hells Angeles before they were on the American radar, spending a year embedded with the gang as they wrecked their havoc on traditional early sixties America. This experience led to a book, and helped define the new type of participatory journalism for which Thompson became so well known. He went on to become a staff writer for Rolling stone, covering a broad range of topics including the McGovern Campaign while being incredibly, incredibly high. He published a slew of books that drew upon his experiences as a coked up, drunken, pill popping lunatic covering politics and culture. He became a caricature of himself soon after the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, due in part to a comic depiction by Garry Trudeau. And somewhere along the line in the 1980’s, he totally lost his edge.
What I thought.
As a feature, Gonzo is a well-written, excellently cut piece that moves you through Thompson’s generation along the trajectory of his works. He takes aim at cultural and political crooks, the acid generation, the entire town of Aspen Colorado, and anyone else stupid enough to wander into his sights. The file footage and photographs of Thompson are seemingl limitless, painting the splattered, ink-smeared canvas of his excess.
If there is one weakness in the film, it is the inertia it loses when recounting the McGovern campaign. As interesting as it is to examine the specifics of the era, the movie suffers from putting a macro on a boring event in political history. And although the introspection works to remind us that the excitement around seemingly Teflon candidates can be ruined overnight (Obama beware), it just lingers a bit too long.
Somewhere around halfway through the movie I started to wonder who fits the bill as a modern day reincarnation of Hunter S. Maybe there is one out there, but nobody comes to mind. Its possible that they are there somewhere, swilling Chivas, snorting Texas Booger Sugar, and screaming at those in power from a roaring Cadillac convertible. Maybe they are just swimming in a sea of noise pumped out by Fox News and its affiliates and faceless among a million bloggers all vying for the digital megaphone. But the other possibility is that we don’t have a Thompson or anyone with an acceptable level of rage, that he was one of the last great American patriots who cared about a nation careening out of control, piloted by crooks and big business. You walk away with this in mind.
But Is Your Money Better Spent on Mescaline?
The truth is that there is no way to answer any of these big questions, and the even greater truth is that they aren’t even questions we need to ask. Thompson lived a life of hedonism, driven by a mixture of anger, questionable morals, and indignation. Even though his search for the American Dream may seem like a poignant quest in a world of strip malls and unending war, it was really just something he thought up to pass the time and pay the bar tab. A goofy, drug-fueled prank and a totally awesome party in the desert that was eventually turned into a book and a movie. So even though it’s hard to answer the question of the ultimate necessity of Hunter’s demise, we can all agree that there has yet to be another quite like him, and in the meantime, watching this flick is time well spent. 8/10.