The late Hunter S. Thompson was a dazzling writer who in his days of greatness — from the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s, approximately — misled a lot of younger writers into believing that if they just ingested enough drugs and alcohol, they, too, could write like Hunter S. Thompson. It didn't work that way. In the end, it didn't even work that way for Hunter anymore.
In "Gonzo," Alex Gibney's moving new documentary about Thompson, we meet the man foursquare: not just the brilliant, rampaging star of the "new journalism" of that period, but also the irascible crank, the drunken gun nut, the public menace. Hunter was much-loved by his many admiring cronies, among them Bill Murray, Keith Richards and Johnny Depp (who narrates the film). "On the other hand," says his ex-wife Sandy, "he was absolutely vicious." Such balanced candor is rare in any documentary, and it makes "Gonzo" the most transfixing film about a troubled artist since the 1994 "Crumb."
Thompson was always involved in some sort of uproar. Even back home in Louisville, Kentucky, he couldn't make it to his high school graduation because he was in jail. The movie, using a rich mix of rare footage, photos, audiotapes and talking heads, chronicles his beginning as a young sports writer, inspired by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and shows us his arrival in San Francisco in 1965, at the height of the hippie/protest moment. There, Hunter dropped acid, bought a Walther P38 (an early efflorescence of what he frankly called "my gun problem") and spent a year hanging out with the Hells Angels, about whom he subsequently wrote a terrific, relatively straightforward book ("Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga"). Hunter had mixed feelings about the Angels. On one hand, as he said, "In a nation of frightened dullards, there's always a shortage of outlaws." On the other hand, a gang of Angels beat him nearly to a pulp after the book's publication. (Thompson had been present at a notorious Angels sex orgy during an all-night party thrown by novelist and LSD evangelist Ken Kesey, and he loaned his audiotape of the incident to Tom Wolfe to use in writing his 1968 psychedelic narrative, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." In "Gonzo," Wolfe offers the movie's highest praise of Thompson's talent: "He reminds me so much of Mark Twain.")
Soon came the glory years. Hunter's strange and wonderful run for mayor of Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket (platform: "No drug worth taking should be sold for money") drew the attention of Rolling Stone, which would soon become his primary outlet. His teaming with the mad British artist Ralph Steadman to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's Monthly resulted in the first flowering of his intensely debauched "gonzo" style, which blossomed fully in the explosive "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." This "savage journey to the heart of the American Dream," which ran in two installments in Rolling Stone in November of 1971, had a seismic cultural effect. What might have been a straight journalistic account of an unexceptional event — a national law-enforcement drug conference at the desert gambling mecca — became in Hunter's words a hallucinatory brew of calumny, malediction and feverish vituperation, with frequent interjections of authorial drug inventories. So powerful was the spell of Thompson's style that a first exposure to "Fear and Loathing" could actually change, at least for a while, the way one perceived the world (and its sudden infestation of giant lizards and mutant humans).
Hunter next applied his gonzo technique to the 1972 presidential race, starting with the Democratic primaries, which came down to a contest between two senators, Edmund Muskie and George McGovern. Thompson, a fairly standard-issue progressive Democrat, was partial to the left-wingish McGovern, and libeled Muskie with wild abandon. (He claimed the hapless senator was addicted to an obscure psychoactive drug called ibogaine — a charge that was swallowed whole by some reporters, and credulously regurgitated in their various publications.) McGovern won the nomination but was crushed in the national election by the sitting president, Richard Nixon. Hunter, who hated Nixon, described him as a man who "speaks to the werewolf in us on nights when the moon comes too close."
Thompson's Rolling Stone reports — "the most accurate and least factual account of the campaign," according to McGovern's campaign manager — were published as a book the following year ("Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72"). Many other tomes followed — memoirs, letters, reclaimed juvenilia, compilations of old magazine pieces. None of them came close to matching the impact of his first three books. By now, Hunter was famous, and wherever he went on assignment, he became the story. Slowly, the work — and the will to do it — dried up, and by the turn of the millennium, he had become something of a hermit, secluded at Owl Creek Farm, his "fortified compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado. There he was visited by celebrity friends, who found him tending his peacocks, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, slamming drugs as if it were still the '70s and firing off his guns whenever the mood struck. (He kept 22 firearms in the house, all loaded at all times.)
By 2005, Hunter's health had deteriorated; he was 67 years old and had long since grown weary of the world. He had talked for years about checking out as soon as life lost its zest, and now he was ready. On the afternoon of February 20, his son Juan found him slumped at the typewriter he still used, dead from a bullet in the head. Many months later, a memorial service was held in the back field of Hunter's property. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon atop a 157-foot-tall "Freak Power" tower. Among the famous friends on hand were Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, Charlie Rose and Johnny Depp, who had played Hunter in the misbegotten film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and who paid for this farewell ceremony.
Hunter died in some disillusionment. Long ago, he'd thought the cultural upheavals of the 1960s would produce a better, more just world. Instead, they evolved into a sex-and-drugs wallow of, as even the hedonistic Hunter saw it, little real social utility. He was haunted by what might have been. Looking back, he said, "You can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back."