Film considers the Gonzo legacy

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson became a legend for his writing, but eventually it proved to be his undoing.
Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Often imitated, but never truly replicated, Hunter S. Thompson's writing took life by the horns and twisted hard.

"He combined the sensibility of a journalist with the writing skills of a great novelist," said Alex Gibney, who won the best documentary Oscar with "Taxi to the Dark Side" this year, and has now turned to Thompson for a subject.

Alex Gibney
Director Alex Gibney won the best documentary Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side." He also made the critically acclaimed "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Now he has turned his attention to Hunter S. Thompson.
Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Gibney says Hunter Thompson could be wickedly funny.

"And I think in his moods, which went from being very sunny and bright, and he was a charming seductive character to sometimes being very cruel, soured by a very dark mood," said Gibney. "Those swinging moods also put him in touch, I think, with the extremes of the American character."

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Thompson began with an extreme: the Hells Angels. It was a magazine assignment, which became a book and ended up with him getting stomped after riding with the Angels for a year. Here's Hell's Angels leader Sonny Barger in the film.

"I met Hunter in the 60's, a short time before he wrote the book on us," Barger said. "And he went on to become one of the greatest writers America will ever have. Don't mean that he isn't a jerk in my eyes, but he is a very good writer."

But it was Thompson's political writings for Rolling Stone magazine and his books "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" that propelled Thompson to the forefront of American journalism. His style blended fact, satire, social commentary, and drug and alcohol induced rants.

"I don't know than anyone will have the whole package like Hunter did, and maybe it's a good thing. You know after all that package ended up doing a lot of damage to Hunter too."

When Rolling Stone assigned him to cover the 1972 presidential race, Alex Gibney says few, if anybody, in the campaigns knew Thompson nor understood the influence he would wield with younger readers.

"He was having this huge impact underground that most people above ground in the straight political world weren't really even aware of," Gibney said.

Thompson's stories in Rolling Stone rejected the objective standards used by other journalists. His argument was he was looking for larger truths.

He openly derided the candidates he didn't like, reserving special venom for Richard Nixon. He concocted outlandish stories about the drug habits of Edward Muskie, and then said he was surprised when the wire picked up the story.

Thompson also wrote glowingly about George McGovern, who ran for the Democratic nomination as an outsider, anti-war candidate.

Gibney says Thompson introduced a generation of young people to the idea of political engagement.

"And more than that, kind of framed the debate, so that people could see the absurdity of the process, and the kind of phoniness of how people in power sometimes express things and lie to the electorate," said Gibney.

The pieces became required reading for many people, including political consultant Frank Mankewitz who appears in the film.

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter Thompson created "Gonzo" journalism, a crazed style that combined facts with fantasy to explore what Thompson held as larger truths.
Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

"I have been quoted many times, and I will say it again: it was the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign," Mankewitz says as his audience laughs.

While there were later smaller successes for Thompson, he never enjoyed those heights again. He was a living legend, and the legend got in the way of writing, as did his drinking and other substance abuse. He committed suicide in 2005.

Gibney doubts there will ever be anyone like him again.

"I don't know that anyone will have the whole package like Hunter did, and maybe it's a good thing. You know after all that package ended up doing a lot of damage to Hunter too," Gibney said.

However, Gibney does see a long-term influence.

He describes some of Thompson stream of consciousness dispatches as an early form of blogging, and he sees his satire in the work of TV hosts Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. He describes Thompson as a patriot, and he says the decision to release the film on the 4th of July is quite deliberate.

"You know, he was one of those guys who when he said, 'My country love it or leave it,' he meant it, but in a different kind of a way," said Gibney. "He could have a lovers' quarrel with his country, but he loved it deeply."

Gibney says like all great writers, Thompson's work will continue to be re-interpreted and maintain its relevance as the years pass.