Saturday, July 19, 2008


The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.

These words, written shortly after 9/11 by Hunter S. Thompson, open the documentary Gonzo--a film that reminds you how great a journalist Thompson could be when he wasn't succumbing to his own demons and self-promotion.

Gonzo, directed by Alex Gibney, manages to explore both Thompson's strengths as a reporter and his lunatic antics. For all the reenactments of scenes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is the interviews with Thompson's first wife, Anita Thompson, and his colleague, Tim Crouse, that form the foundation of the film. Anita and Crouse capture Thompson's dualities--his immersion reporting and fantastic fabrications, his idealism and his nastiness. Once you've heard Anita describe Thompson's mean side, and his loathing of Richard Nixon, scenes of Thompson cavorting in a Nixon mask take on a dark meaning.

Gonzo is a heavily produced documentary, with everything from interviews to archival footage to reenactments. The period sound track is good, although I thought the playing of "Out of My Head" during an interview with George McGovern's electro-shocked vice-presidential nominee Tom Eagleton was a bit much.

More questionable is the way the film echoes Thompson's adulation for Jimmy Carter. Thompson fell for Carter after he heard him deliver a populist Law Day speech that quoted Bob Dylan. But as MORE magazine showed at the time, Carter's knowledge of Dylan was thin. And the populism of Carter's speech was not a defining feature of his presidency. (All things considered, Carter was a much better ex-president than president.)

Still, one of the pleasures of the film was hearing some of my favorite work by Thompson read into the narration, from his lines about roaring down the California coast on a a motorcycle in pursuit of The Edge to his coverage of the 1972 McGovern campaign in Fear and Loathng on the Campaign Trail. And nothing tops the reading of Thompson's lines about Nixon as a werewolf, juxtaposed against images of a rough beast skulking through the dark streets of Washington, DC.

Thompson is too often remembered today for his booze, drugs and self-promotion. (At least that's what makes one student want to write on him every year in my journalism history class.) As Gonzo shows, though, Thompson at his best was a free-thinking craftsman who took his work seriously. We still have need of his kind today.

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