Before the impassioned, inventive invective of Keith Olbermann, there was Hunter S. Thompson, master of intemperate defamation. About Richard Nixon, he wrote: “He was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw on his pants every morning.” Thompson’s claim that Edmund Muskie, a Democratic candidate for the presidency, was addicted to an imaginary Brazilian drug called Ibogaine was too bizarre to be either a Republican smear or suitable for libel litigation; it was a specimen of gonzo, Thompson’s flamboyant mélange of fact and fiction.
Along with Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and George Plimpton, Thompson belongs to that moment four decades ago when nonfiction supplanted fiction at the center of the American literary game. In Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” and other febrile books and articles, he practiced a kind of participatory journalism in which the writer became part of the story while fortified with copious infusions of drugs and alcohol. He flaunted the bravura of a brigand, but, despite the arsenal of firearms that he owned, his most effective weapon was baroque, hyperbolic prose. By the time of his self-inflicted death, at 67, Thompson had, according to Jann Wenner, become a victim of the persona that made him
Wenner, the editor who commissioned much of Thompson’s work at Rolling Stone, speaks on camera in Alex Gibney’s attempt to take the cinematic measure of an extraordinarily creative and destructive man. So, too, do politicians George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, and Gary Hart, Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger, artist Ralph Steadman, writers Tom Wolfe and Tim Crouse, historian Douglas Brinkley, singer Jimmy Buffett, wives Sondi Wright and Anita Thompson, and son Juan Thompson. Johnny Depp reads from Thompson texts. The challenge facing Gibney, whose Taxi to the Dark Side used the plight of one innocent Afghan driver to expose systemic abuses in American military prisons, was to create a documentary in a style suitable to his manic subject. The result, using back projection and split screens, is a mix of file footage, interviews, fantasy sequences, and raucous rock that is the portrait of an era and its errant amanuensis. Thompson, who taught himself the writer’s craft by typing out The Great Gatsby, was charismatic but also obnoxious and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, he came closer than most others to capturing in words the madness of his riotous times. He was an anarchist outlaw who came within 31 votes of being elected sheriff of Aspen.
Thompson put a bullet through his head on February 20, 2005, and his first wife, insisting that his voice might have continued to make a difference, regards his life as tragic. In his NBC newscast, Brian Williams summed up the guru of gonzo as “a monument to misbehavior.” In Generation of Swine (1988), Thompson himself mused: “It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.” As Gonzo shows, Hunter S. Thompson did all three, spectacularly. •