For the counter-culture crowd of the late 1960s and early 1970s, reading Hunter S. Thompson was de rigueur. His best-known books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972) and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973) marked a hypercharged, drug-fueled new style of writing, which came to be called “The New Journalism.” While writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer were re-defining the role of journalist by creating highly-stylized and proudly-subjective accounts of political and cultural tumult in the 1960s, Thompson was pushing the genre even further by blending outrageous and frankly false commentary along with his occasionally brilliant reportage. He called his style “gonzo journalism,” and his persona ended up inspiring the character Duke in the comic strip Doonesbury.
A new documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, by Alex Gibney (director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) includes testimony from many people who knew Thompson and narration by Johnny Depp (who portrayed Thompson in the Hollywood version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The film captures Thompson in his full manic complexity and depravity: his deep sense of outrage toward injustice and hypocrisy; his truly amazing capacity for drugs and alcohol; his outbursts of temper and rage toward those close to him; his obsessive love of guns; his hatred of Nixon; his scorn for Humphrey and Muskie; his admiration for McGovern and Jimmy Carter.
The film pulls no punches, noting that by the time he committed suicide in 2005, Thompson had not written much of anything noteworthy for many years. But while the film chronicles the long, slow fade of a counter-culture superstar, it also reminds us of a moment in American history when political reporting had far more bite–and more entertaining outrage–than it does today. If Gonzo has a flaw it is—appropriately enough—the same one that much of Thompson’s writing suffered from: at nearly two hours it simply goes on too long saying more or less the same thing.
Now in theaters. DVD release planned for November 18.