Tucked away amidst the fawning hagiography and dewy-eyed sentiment of Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is an almost unbearable tale of wasted talent; how an authentic, all-too-necessary voice of an era, or a generation, or even a way of life, crested much like the wave of his Vegas vision, and fell back into paranoia, sickness, atrophy, and suicide. The most telling aspect of Gibney’s documentary is that of all the talking heads on display — politicians, poets, and pundits alike — not a single one offers a word of defense for any Thompson work after the high water mark of the 1970s. Here was a man — more self-created myth, really — who once ruled absolutely from his privileged perch, yet had not a whit to say of a world that burned before his eyes from the Bicentennial forward.
Sure, he fell into that common trap of buying into his own mystique and, quite depressingly, trying to live up to an impossible image, but if we are to assess a life in full — as we must — then the life and work of Dr. Thompson is more the story of a dream deferred; a frantic pursuit that sprang from the soil of rebellion, only to disappear in a cloud of shocking irrelevance. So while the tone of this film is celebratory and often embarrassingly deferential (even the man’s cruelty and unbearable narcissism are twisted into the virtues of an anti-hero), it fails to remove his disjointed figure from the decaying amber of a time long past and make a case for his continued study. Thompson spoke a certain truth, and did it well over the course of a decade, but what good was he when we really needed him? He coasted for too long, and if anything, this film stands as an unintended indictment of his legacy.
From the Hell Angels piece to the landmark coverage of the 1972 campaign trail, Thompson earned every ounce of his adoration, using the unencumbered voice of angry disillusionment to peek behind a curtain long established as impenetrable. Through caustic, vulgar language, he elevated journalism beyond mere stenography, even if the term stretched itself thin through fabrication and outright falsehood. Thompson was subjective at every turn, and unapologetically so, and the politics of the period deserved nothing less. How else to treat murderers and criminals, after all? Thompson was far from the first writer to challenge the prevailing wisdom that elevated dullards to positions of public trust, but he was one of the best at doing it with humor and inebriated swagger. And a few calculated lies. He was often deliberately unlikable, which made his insights that much more penetrating and essential to the public dialogue.
Content aside (and it’s fair to say that any allegiance to fact was scrupulously avoided), he ushered in — for good and bad — the blurring of observer and the story being covered. More than that, he fathered a writing style that paid little heed to the accuracy of the event and more to the “essence” of what was being revealed; “truthiness,” in the parlance of our own time. Because old-fashioned “straight” reporting has done little but regurgitate the spin of the powerful, it became necessary to create a counter-fiction, albeit one that sought to recreate and redefine, rather than maintain the status quo. Just as importantly, Thompson’s prose reduced most of our fluttering about to its core savagery: lust, self-indulgence, and rank hypocrisy. It was a proud moment in our cultural heritage, though one that could not be maintained beyond that glorious day in the sun.
It’s highly debatable, of course, whether or not Thompson’s insights would have held an iota of resonance had he been sober, or even slightly less intoxicated. Likely not. But what the final decades of his life prove is that while skating on the edge of madness can help inspire shocking brilliance, the journey is unavoidably temporary. In fact, the rush of illumination begins its creeping fade almost from the moment it begins. From that point on, the subject in question begins chasing an impossible ghost. For the portals that are first opened quickly yield to the realities of the life: boredom, prickly self-importance, tedium, and the reduced mental (and physical) capacity to produce meaningful work. Thompson’s great epiphany of no return occurred in Zaire, where he had been sent to cover the Ali/Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle.” Instead of writing his piece, Thompson spent the entire time snorting cocaine, emptying liquor bottles, and floating adrift in a swimming pool.
One might argue the episode was that rare slip, but it signaled the beginning of the end; the opening salvo of his descent into despair and the silent typewriter of a has-been. Creative juices may indeed have ebbed, but it’s safe to say that years of impossible living had caught up to him at last, and the spark that had been running on borrowed time had reached the point where no oxygen remained to fan the flame. The hallucinations could only take a person so far. He simply lacked the good fortune to die on the mountain top. Had he been given another chance, he might have set shotgun to pumpkin at this precise moment of clarity. Everything to come was a shocking void.
But he did not end there, and his memory is the poorer for it. The film is far weaker, too, for it never considers that what pushed him to the forefront of his craft may in fact have brought him down in equal measure. No one wants to utter such heresies, however, lest the faithful get stop believing in a drug-laden path to immortality. I have little doubt that a clear-eyed Thompson would have been an abject failure (surely he would have taken fewer chances), but too little time was spent with the Thompson made flesh by years of drug abuse and alcoholism. Sure, his first wife hints at his self-destruction, and a friend or two offers an anecdote from a lost weekend, but what are we to make of a loud, boorish gun nut who treated loved ones as mere refuse on his road to stardom? Sure, even that’s an old story oft-told, but such years — more years than the glory days, in fact — are as part of the man as the romantic bus rides of ‘72.
Consider his run for sheriff of Aspen, an event turned into a laugh-filled haze of snickering silliness, that may actually be one of his least honorable moments. Offering a platform of replacing sidewalks with sod and public flogging of dishonest drug dealers, his narrow loss was construed — both by himself and the film — as a reflection of the Man’s fear of the people, when instead it just might be the most rational act by a notoriously eccentric mountain populace. Yes, the candidates we often get, whether on a national level or in local races, are ridiculous on their face, but it’s hard to imagine how making a joke of the process brings about the desired reforms. Though the idea of a perpetually stoned, shorts-wearing lawman sounds appealing while dropping acid under the stars, the reality of such childishness would be more akin to anarchy. Thompson’s run, then, like all other self-righteous attempts to make a point, look utterly idiotic with even a day’s hindsight. To the film, though, it was a glorious strike against entrenched interests.
Quite unintentionally, Gibney’s film makes Thompson seem like the last person any sane member of the human race would choose to be around, which may have been the point. In spite of this, he was (and is) an icon of individualism, even if such freedom could only be attained by living in one of the country’s most expensive communities. Yes, children, it takes a great deal of money to live like the good doctor, a small fact he fails to mention as he’s lecturing the rest of us on our hollow pursuits. Good for him for making a comfortable living while rarely setting eyes on a sober morning, but you’re never going to see the footage where every single aspect of daily life that allows one to function was taken care of by a surrogate. Thompson cuts a fine figure at his writing desk to be sure, but for every published article, there’s a bleary-eyed figure in the dark calling the plumber and making sure the wee ones make it to school on time. Mere trivia, perhaps, and worth taking into account. I’d be the first to argue that art has a certain license that leaves others in its wake, but just once I’d like to hear from the help. Great men never reach the ramparts in isolation, least of all those who fail to get out of bed until dinner time.
And yet, Gibney’s film is a fine addition to the fog-shrouded valley of 60s-era romanticism, and it would be wrong to dismiss the project for its failure to correct the common fiction. Thompson was important, was influential, and deserves the accolades he receives, if only because his life marked a cultural transition where the storyteller came to outshine the actual story. Bullshit with a sense of style. To downplay his contributions would be pure folly, but I couldn’t help but wonder, at least with the evidence on display, if we are at all capable of looking at the work without the veneer of the outlandish personality that produced it. Maybe even that is more folly, but what did we learn from Thompson’s words, and do they make a damn bit of difference outside of their very narrow historical context? Sure, jabs against Edmund Muskie made us chuckle then, but what of those whose memories extend back no further than Bill Clinton? Is there a universal appeal to the prose?
In some ways, yes, for good writing means something in any age, but if it fails to move beyond its time, true greatness must elude its grasp. Perhaps it is enough that Thompson was that era’s resident maniac, capturing the sights, odors, and flavors in such a way that only those “in the know” could ever hope to understand. I’ll acknowledge that for all of his efforts, that’s more than enough (fuck if he didn’t nail the pathetic shell Humphrey had become, for example). As such, he had to turn in his pen after Vietnam and Watergate ebbed away into the mist. More scandal and chicanery would follow, as they always will, but they weren’t his tales to tell. Whether he resigned in disgust or lost the intellectual heft to carry the fight forward, his final act was perhaps his only selfless one on record. Unfolding events require new voices, and only the great ones have the courage to step aside. Thompson’s suicide came far too late to grant this theory much currency, but given the ego involved, we’re lucky it ever came at all.
And let us never forget that as much as Thompson ripped apart the entrails of a dying republic, he did so only after believing in the same fantasy he came to deride, from McGovern to Carter and back again. That he subscribed to an alternative, a way out — even for a moment — is testimony to the fact that for all of his horseplay, bitterness, and keen judgment, he was a fool like all the rest of us. Sure, he saw Nixon’s re-election as a confirmation of his fears and realization of national surrender, but he came to this point reluctantly; a trial by gunfire and endless war. His first mistake was the idea that there was in fact an Eden before the Fall. His “used car salesmen,” the American people personified, to him just then becoming, have always been thus, and will likely remain the rule as long as we play-act our democratic system. But what of the man in unending opposition? His life is our guide. And our disturbing answer.