2008. Directed by Alex Gibney.
It was impossible, eventually, to tell Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist, from Hunter S. Thompson, the legend, and that was problematic. “Not only was I not necessary, I was in the way,” he explains in his familiar monotone mumble. The drinking had become expected, the drugs required, the guns were fired randomly, providing the dangerous edge, now that his writing wasn’t supplying it. The rebel celebrity had outlived the rebel insight, but, after years of drug use and alcohol abuse, he still controlled the narrative. He knew how to wrap up his story.
This remarkable documentary thankfully de-emphasizes the celebrity, and celebrates the journalist who infiltrated the Hells Angels, accompanied George McGovern on the campaign trail, and discovered the death of the American Dream in Las Vegas. His ability to see through the phoniness was cherished by readers of Rolling Stone and his novels, and his willingness to walk up “to the edge” endeared him to a rising youth culture. Riding his motorcycle late at night, helmetless, along the California coast, he pushed it to 100 mph. “That’s when I began to hear the strange music,” he remembered. During the day, draining glass after glass of Wild Turkey, and picking out keys on the typewriter like setting off mouse traps, he looked for the strange music in his subjects.
The film combines photos, home and archival video, re-enactments, portrayals, the demented artwork of partner-in-crime Ralph Steadman, and a devoted narration by Johnny Depp to make the point that Thompson wrote amazingly insightful works while creating a larger-than-life presence whose exaggerations, visions and lies made you unsure of every word. On the 1972 presidential campaign trail, says McGovern’s then-campaign manager, Thompson somehow captured “the least factual and most accurate account.”
Seeing things clearly was one of the amazing talents of this man, especially considering his mythic intake of alcohol and drugs — he saw things exceptionally clearly, even when hallucinating. And truth was the elusive goal he was reaching for, even when he couldn’t be sure it was in front of him at all. His dismay at the tragic mistakes of the McGovern campaign — announced vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton was forced to withdraw from the ticket — and its defeat to Nixon made him lose hope, and the election of George W. Bush convinced him to give up any hope for the future of the country he loved. The portrayal here of his candidacy for the office of Aspen sheriff paints him as a doomed, passionate patriot.
No one seems surprised that Hunter S. Thompson shot himself at his Woody Creek home in 2005. He had talked about it for years. When his son heard what he first thought was a book falling to the floor in the other room, he stepped outside and fired a gun into the sky as a tribute. Later, friends would gather, as Thompson had planned, to fire his ashes into the sky as a funeral. It seems like a shame, to miss out on whatever his writing could bring us during the dark Bush years, but maybe the author knew that there was nothing left, and it was time to go. It was the only honest way.