While director Alex Gibney’s latest documentary isn’t quite the accomplishment Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room or Taxi to the Dark Side represented, it is a timely and well-intentioned reminder of the vital role of the press in American politics. The film’s creator slips into fanboy mode frequently as he recounts his subject’s rise to prominence and the creation of his wild-man persona. His new movie works best when it focuses instead on Thompson’s 1972 and 1976 presidential campaign coverage, his contempt for Richard Nixon and his journalistic credo.
Gibney takes a while to get to his point. Gonzo meanders somewhat in its first hour, speculating about childhood events that might have sparked Thompson’s distrust of the establishment and devoting a disproportionate amount of time to relatively incidental matters — such as the writer’s love of motorcycle riding, his recollections of a party at Ken Kesey’s house and his ill-fated 1970 run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.
The movie is also thin on insight when it comes to the breakthrough moment in Thompson’s career — the accidental discovery of his signature voice and style. The filmmaker points to the 1970 publication of “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” and offers interview footage of the author admitting that he considered the piece a failure — until he saw the enthusiastic response it drew from readers. What Gibney doesn’t get around to offering is any sort of window into the writer’s mind. He doesn’t help us comprehend the process by which Thompson made the leap from beatnik participatory journalist to the inventor of gonzo.
To stand in for Thompson’s own high-octane prose, the director relies on footage from two Hollywood films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp and Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray), and in doing so, he does his subject a disservice when addressing the work that cemented his place in literary history. A piece of writing so wild and wondrously original deserves better in a film like this than clips from second-rate adaptations and an anecdote from Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner — who recalls arguing with Thompson over renting a Cadillac in which to search for the American Dream.
The second half of the picture traces Thompson’s emergence as the pre-eminent political journalist of his generation, and it works far better than the first. The film’s most satisfying moments concern the writer’s coverage of the 1972 presidential race and the unprecedented liberties he took with the rules of reportage.
Gibney reminds us what a singular moment in time — and what fun — it was. Through interviews with such Thompson admirers as Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and Jimmy Buffett, he paints a fascinating portrait of a merry political prankster openly backing McGovern, describing Nixon as a vampire skulking through the Washington night, and brazenly interweaving fiction and fact. It’s difficult to imagine a writer having a comparable impact on a presidential election today. As the film recounts, Thompson’s elaborately fabricated reports of drug abuse by Ed Muskie contributed to the implosion of the former frontrunner’s campaign.
Testimonials to Thompson’s superhuman tolerance for alcohol and chemicals are entertaining, but the meat of the movie is its discussion of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and the evolution of his professional ethos. There’s an illuminating passage in which Thompson justifies his disdain for journalistic objectivity:
“He [Nixon] was a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. lost in all of WWII . . . Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for objective journalism, which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. You had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly. He was so crooked he needed servants to help him screw on his pants every morning.”
A quarter-century later, here we are with another corrupt administration and another pointless war, the very same sort of quagmire of which Thompson wrote with such unhinged eloquence. The parallels underscored by Gibney’s documentary are indeed troubling. All the more so because, this time around, there seems to be no one in the press able or willing to rage against them with anything approaching the glorious indignation of Hunter Thompson.
The doctor is out.