Hunter S. Thompson isn't always associated with terms like "brilliant writer" or "inventor of gonzo journalism" or even "patriot." By the time his famous work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted for film in 1998, he was becoming a caricature and a symbol of a bygone era. Just as there is irony in one of history's most complicated revolutionaries, Che Guevara, being boiled down to an Urban Outfitters t-shirt, it is equally reductive to oversimplify Thompson as some kind of drug-addled delinquent without a cause.
Now that I've seen what will likely be referred to as the definitive documentary about Thompson's life by the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, it's clear that reducing him to a kind of hipster icon who lived only to push the boundaries of consciousness with extreme substance abuse is terribly simplistic and inaccurate. Through the folks who knew him well (Jimmy Carter, publisher of Rolling Stone Jann Wenner, George McGovern, his first wife, etc.) the picture that emerges from this movie is of a man who was a walking, talking challenge to the status quo.
To read what surprised me about the good doctor's life and why this is an entertaining jaunt through recent history, read more.
Sure, the guy enjoyed ingesting large amounts of drugs. Yet, the most striking part of the documentary is that his drug abuse wasn't your run-of-the-mill self-destructive cycle of an addict, but rather the fuel used during this extraordinary man's most productive years to pump out pages of writing that was, at that point in history, unlike anything anyone had ever read.
The movie is bookended by the requisite biographical details of where he was from and how his life ended, but the most entertaining and historically interesting part of the movie is the period in which he was riding high on his talent (roughly 1965-1975). And if there is a nit to be picked, it's that the movie is probably too long. Focusing on his most productive years could have been enough. The downward spiral ending in suicide, followed by the lavish, celebrity-studded memorial services might have been better told in some ending text and pictures during the credits.
During this productive period he was pretty busy: riding and living with the Hell's Angels, writing and publishing books and articles, running for sheriff of Aspen and covering the 1972 election for Rolling Stone.
The movie is narrated exclusively through Thompson's words, either from old footage or readings done by Johnny Depp (who befriended Thompson when he was preparing to portray him in Fear and Loathing). It's clear from these words that, in addition to being madly, bitingly hilarious, he was deeply committed to certain ideals. The film is nostalgic and informative, but what makes it also tragic is how much Thompson cared for this country. It feels as though everything he did came from a deep love and fascination with the American dream. Even more compelling was his laser-like obsession with the people he saw as a threat to that dream.
Enemy number one: Richard Nixon. Some of the most side-splittingly funny moments of the documentary come from readings of his most acerbic prose directed toward Nixon, a man he basically regarded as the root of all evil. My other favorite moment is his run for office in Aspen where he brings "freaks" and "hippies" to the small town, and shaves his head so he could say he was running against the long-haired guy. Make no mistake about it: this movie has a point of view, with the director often visually depicting the parallels between Thompson's world then and what's going on now.
It's the emphasis on Thompson's words, his work, and his hope for the forces of good to triumph in America that makes this documentary riveting. It might have been easier to focus on the drugs and the hilarity that often ensued wherever he went. But more than just being a blast to hang out with, Thompson was a transcendent talent who ruthlessly criticized the establishment.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures