After Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and this vivid, significant depiction of the Sixties and Seventies superstar journalist Hunter Thompson, Alex Gibney has emerged as clearly one of the best documentary filmmakers we've got and also one of the most prolific.
Gibney tells a very smart, very verbal, very funny but also intensely significant story here. Some of the people who speak most highly of Thompson on camera are Billy Carter, William McGovern, and longtime Republican presidential adviser Pat Buchanan,as well as writer Tom Woolf and Thompson's editors at Rolling Stone, for which he did his best periodical pieces, the notable ones turned into books. More intimate details--but the man was such a perpetual performer that public and private are hard to separate--come from Thompson's first and second wives. And the English artist Ralph Steadman, who illustrated the writing, has much to say, as do plenty of others. When Steadman first met Thompson he fed the Brit Psilocybin and he was never the same. Steadman became an invaluable cohort and collaborator and his wild drawings provide a perfect visual counterpart to Thompson's written words on screen.
Thompson was a notorious wild man from early on. "I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me," he said. Prodigious in his consumption of drugs and alcohol, he was witness to some of the great events of his time, and got deeply involved in politics and opposition to the Vietnam war and of course the counterculture. Lean, athletic, flashily dressed, with trademark balding pate, big sunglasses, cigarette holder and drink in hand, Thompson was a demon at the IBM Selectric, gleefully spinning out brilliant pieces nobody else could have written, a master of outrage and wit.
Fueled by craziness, substances, and his own tongue-in-cheek joie de vivre, he devised his own outrageous style of writing in which cold clear fact was blended with wild invention and the adjectives and metaphors flew like hornets around a honey pot. Others too partook of the kind of journalism he practiced. The times--the flamboyant and boisterous and revolutionary Sixties and early Seventies-- seemed to call for a new more violent, more committed language in journalism. Norman Mailer also wrote about the democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 and on hand for Esquire were the likes of Jean Genet and William Burroughs. Three is something of Burroughs in Thompson, the drugs and the outrage and a way of seeing convention as conspiracy. One of Thompson's famous quotes gives a hint of the link: "America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable." This was the moment when the distinction between fiction and non-fiction blurred: Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which used raw material from the more adventurous Thompson), Thompson's act of "embedded journalism" as Wolfe calls it, Hell's Angels), Truman Capote's murder story In Cold Blood done for The New Yorker, were all variations on the idea of the "non-fiction novel." Mailer had done a heroically personal and novelistic account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night. The film might do a bit more to put Thompson in all this context, but it's clearly implied. He called his wild style "gonzo" journalism.
Thompson also wrote about Las Vegas as the American dream and about Nixon, whom he loathed. He also used a tape recorder a lot. This provides great material for the film. So does the Terry Gilliam film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the film and became a great fan and friend, reads salient passages sitting in front of a well-stocked bar. Depp paid for the spectacular monument/funeral for the writer that Thompson had--on film--planned out long before, in which his ashes are fired into the Colorado hills. Ralph Steadman did the sketches. This is shown at the end of the film and provides a lovely son et lumière finale.
Thompson's innate violence may explain how he could have blended in so well for a while with the Hell's Angels. He kept at least twenty firearms on hand in his house, all loaded, his first wife reports. He always planned to end his life with suicide and he shot himself. He did it on a nice day in February almost as a family event, with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson at the house and on the phone with his wife, a shot to the head, at the age of 68, not an act of depression but the completion of a careful plan. It was over. And he had been here to see George W. Bush and predict the decline and fall of the American empire. A late collection of short pieces is entitled Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness.
His dissipation took its toll and so did fame. He fell into playing a self-parodying avatar of himself and his writing deteriorated after the later Seventies, so he had about ten good years and about twenty not-so-good ones. Some have dwelt on his decline; Gonzo doesn't. His writing faltered as early as 1974 when he went to Zaire with Steadman to cover the Foreman-Ali "Rumble in the Jungle" and he got drunk at the pool during the fight and never finished the story. Given how bright he burned and how hard he lived, it was inevitable that the man would burn out early And writing did not by any means fizzle out even into the Nineties. There is an immense wealth of spinoffs on film; Gibney had rich, rich material to work with here.
The best that could happen is that this beautifully edited and greatly entertaining film makes a host of new converts to the writing.