Without doubt, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was a countercultural American icon and a major literary force. The pioneer of a highly subjective style of journalism known as "Gonzo," Thompson cast a keen, if at times hallucinating eye on an America he loved but which, after a brief flowering in the mid-1960s, he knew was in serious decline. It's also a fact that Thompson was serious drug user, alcoholic and avid gun enthusiast known for taking pot shots at fax machines and typewriters. On February 20, 2005, Thompson turned his .44 Magnum on himself, a move which in retrospect shouldn't have surprised anyone familiar with his depressive, self-destructive personality, but which still came as a shock. Even though Thompson had stopped writing regularly years earlier, his absence has been felt in the years since his death, particularly among those who remember his hysterical pieces for Rolling Stone magazine during the darkest years of the Nixon administration, and who wish Thompson had the wherewithal to stick around and report on the surreal nightmare of the Bush White House and the war in Iraq.
Among these mourners is Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE), whose affectionate two-hour documentary about the good doctor traces a remarkable career. Gibney glosses over Thompson's youth -- he and his two brothers where raised by their single, widowed mother in St. Louis, Missouri -- education, military service, early novels and marriage to Sondra Conklin to focus on five of Thompson's greatest hits: Hells' Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, which Thomson published in 1966 after a year of riding and living with the infamous wild bunch; "The Battle of Aspen," Thompson's account of his 1970 bid to become sheriff of Apsen, Colorado, on a "Freak Power" platform that not only included the legalization of marijuana but prescient environmental protections and zoning regulations (the piece would be his first for Rolling Stone's Jan Wenner); "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," Thompson's "coverage" of the famous horse race that not only introduced Thompson to illustrator Ralph Steadman but gave birth to the Gonzo style; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the abortive Sports Illustrated sidebar on a Vegas motorcycle race that soon morphed into a poignant -- and drug-soaked -- search for the American dream; and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson's personal account of the democratic primaries and arguably his greatest contribution to American journalism.
Relying heavily on footage from other films, including Terry Gilliam's adaptation of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Art Linson's WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, and Wayne Ewing's recent documentary BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER; as well as interviews with people who knew and couldn't help but like him (including Pat Buchanan!) and Johnny Depp's readings from Thompson's works, Gibney's film is a bit of a whitewash. Gibney doesn't dwell too long on Thompson's failings and failures, and takes his dangerous behavior -- drugs and alcohol and guns, oh my -- as part of the larger-than-life, always outrageous image that became Thompson's undoing. This handsomely mounted documentary takes the same, indulgent tone that at lot of Thompson's friends and associates seem to have had. Throughout the missed deadlines, temper tantrums and cruel insults, they knew they were dealing with a man who was in many ways still a child, but one who also happened to have been a genius. leave a comment --Ken Fox