Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT: Hunter S. Thompson was hell on wheels, from the Angels to self-annihilation.
A new documentary traces the wild life of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson
By Richard von Busack
ALEX GIBNEY'S Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson documents the success and heartbreak of one of the most influential writers of the 1970s. Thompson's own influences are easy to trace. He died with a photo of Hemingway in his office; Papa's ghost bade Thompson to make a horse's ass out of himself, just like the master. Thompson's biographer Douglas Brinkley recalls that HST used to type and retype The Great Gatsby to understand the music of Fitzgerald's sentences. (Brinkley adds something incisive: Fitzgerald gazed through the window at the rich; Thompson preferred to smash the glass.) He starved as a freelancer, starting his most serious work following the Hell's Angels on their rounds. One of the many tidbits presented in the film is that Thompson risked his life for The Nation, so any writer can guess how little money he made for that assignment. Given workaday jobs covering the Mint 300 motorcycle race in Las Vegas and the Kentucky Derby, Thompson turned the tables for drug- and bourbon-fueled hell-rants against the ugliness of late 1960s American society. This, then, was Gonzo. Others tried it, but Thompson remained the champion of the style. He mixed the gilded invective of the British Augustan age with sweaty pulp-fiction horror.
One of the best aspects of Gonzo is Gibney's recollection of Thompson's forgotten position as a Democratic party kingmaker. He was the first to champion Jimmy Carter, for instance. Thompson's regular perch, Rolling Stone, was trusted by newly enfranchised 18-year-old voters. There, HST used partisan rhetoric to push George McGovern over that noble politician's rival, Hubert Humphrey: "A treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler." Ultimately, what he and his nation got was four more years of Nixon. Thompson's rhetoric ought to outlive the politician: "Nixon speaks to the werewolf in us."
Celebrity and its discontents attracted loungers to Thompson, leading to wastrel years in Aspen and Key West. The movie ends with suicide. Was it a tragedy? It came at age 67, very close to the three score and 10 we're allotted. Some of Thompson's relatives respect the writer's decision to annihilate himself. Not so, his ex-wife Sondi Wright. And in this film, she and former Sen. Gary Hart seem the two shrewdest judges of Thompson's character. Wright argues that Thompson had more to give. No doubt there were other factors involved in the suicide, but HST's checking-out point was one month to the day after George W. Bush's second inauguration. Watching W speak, Thompson wrote, "I almost felt sorry for him, until I heard someone call him 'Mr. President,' and then I felt ashamed." It was a failure of hope that led Thompson to the greatest mistake of his career, sitting out the Ali-Foreman fight in a hotel pool in Zaire. I don't want to be a gibbering idealist—and HST certainly was, at least part of the time—but the light of Obama's candidacy might have countered Thompson's feelings that it was too dark to travel any longer. Remember the famous passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas about the breaking of the 1960s wave? Maybe he would have lived long enough to see the turning of the tide.
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