He's as Gonzo as we want him to be; Another gloss on Hunter S. Thompson's life
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 July 2008)

One day in 1974 Rolling Stone magazine carried an astonishing article: Its most famous writer, Hunter S. Thompson, had fallen in love with a politician. Thompson, who routinely poured vitriol on the whole political class, announced that he had discovered, by listening to just one speech, that governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia was a great statesman.

Thompson heard Carter speak at Law Day in Atlanta, a celebration of the legal profession, and listened in awe as the governor savaged lawyers for their part in maintaining an unfair class system, helping powerful citizens preserve their privileged positions. In his two years as governor Carter had realized that criminal law treated the poor unfairly: "It may be that poor people are the only ones who commit crimes, but I do know that they are the only ones who serve prison sentences."

By the time Carter finished, Thompson was a convert. He acquired a tape of the speech, copied it for friends and often listened to it late at night. For the next two years Thompson and Carter were mutually passionate admirers. Time magazine said that they had formed one of the most bizarre relationships in American politics, the born-again Christian and the nation's most famous user of illegal drugs. When Carter surprised everyone by winning the 1976 presidential election, Thompson received a share of the credit.

Carter several times sings Thompson's praises in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a recently released biographical documentary. But here's an odd thing about that film: It doesn't quote the famous speech, doesn't quote Thompson's views of it and doesn't even mention Carter's four years as president. And, of course, there's no hint of what, if anything, Thompson thought when his hero turned out to be an embarrassing incompetent.

Fashion explains these omissions. Carter is out of fashion (except among enemies of Israel). The film tells us how much Thompson loved the two murdered Kennedys and how vigorously he backed George McGovern's failed presidential campaign in 1972.

But those are tragedies and a failure, each in a different way always in season. A successful campaign such as Carter's, ending in a dreary presidency, disappears from memory because it doesn't fit Thompson's legend.

In 1972, his wonderfully funny book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, set in stone everyone's idea of him as a dedicated drug-user and serious drunk. His appetites became part of every anecdote told about him and every story written about him. Apparently hallucinogens stirred his imagination, amphetamine or cocaine helped him write and Wild Turkey bourbon served as an always reliable back-up.

Why is spectacular self-indulgence and self-destruction attractive? His life, as much as his writing, made him famous. Perhaps his role was to act out the irresponsible dreams of wildness lurking in many male hearts. He became the subject of two films, Where the Buffalo Roam in 1980, with Bill Murray, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, with Johnny Depp. And he appeared in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip as Uncle Duke, a paranoid gun-lover firing automatic weapons from his front porch at imaginary enemies.

He believed that Trudeau's use of him was vicious and unfair. Thompson made it his business to turn politicians into cartoons (he called Richard Nixon a vampire who roamed the night in Washington) but apparently believed that his own life should have been off limits. In this fantasy he was typical of many journalists.

His myth cramped his professional life by making him more famous than some of his subjects. Once transformed into a celebrity, he could no longer function anonymously as a reporter. In his declining years this gave him one among many excuses for not writing. "The myth has taken over," he said once. The film suggests he was paralyzed by his self-created reputation. Either that or, more likely, he was overwhelmed by an ocean of booze and a mountain of drugs.

In the end his inactive years lasted longer than his productive period. He was alive, excited and writing eagerly, for about 20 years. That was followed by about 30 years of near silence, a kind of retirement that began at age 47 and ended in 2005 when he shot himself at 67. The turning point seems to have been the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Thompson, on the scene to cover it with his talented friend and illustrator, Ralph Steadman, got hopelessly stoned, gave away his tickets for the fight and spent the evening floating in his hotel pool. He let everyone down, including his editor, the rather peeved Steadman, and of course himself. His first wife remembers that after Africa he just couldn't write. "He couldn't piece it together."

Alex Gibney, the director of Gonzo, assembles testimony from Thompson's first and second wives, McGovern, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan and Thompson's editor at Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner. Johnny Depp, who spent a fortune on Thompson's funeral, carrying out his wish to have his ashes fired into the sky by a cannon, reads a voice-over derived from the articles. Gibney also chased down many odd bits of footage. Thompson shows up briefly on a celebrated edition of the CBC's This Hour Has Seven Days, confronted by members of the Hell's Angels who were angered by the book he wrote about them. We glimpse Thompson on another long-ago CBC show, 90 Minutes Live, with the late Peter Gzowski wearing his 1970s haircut in an uncredited cameo.

Gibney's way of avoiding uncomfortable conflicts makes his work an echo of the old-fashioned journalism that aroused the contempt of Thompson and others in his generation. Suffering from chronic adoration of his subject, equipped with the facts but nothing much else, Gibney turns his account of a notable career into a fan's notes, the cinematic equivalent of the standard obit that tells the subject's life mainly as the deceased saw it, with a few discordant notes added as a nod to balance.

But for all its lack of fresh perspective, there's something undeniably evocative about Gonzo. It reminds us of the often exuberantly mindless period when Thompson flourished - a time of infinite silliness wrapped in blankets of self-righteousness, but also a now-mythical era that the present often can't keep itself from envying.

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