When Hunter S. Thompson finally put a gun to his head and blew his brains out, he fulfilled a long-standing promise that brought an abrupt, tidy end to a gargantuan, messy life that left debris all over the American landscape. Now, three years later, his friends, family and even enemies don't seem quite sure what to make of him, describing him with a mix of bemusement and awe as if they were just buzzed by a low-flying U.F.O.
A pageant of famous faces parades by director Alex Gibney's (Taxi to the Dark Side) camera, each happy to share some wild anecdote or cherished moment, and all eager to try to parse meaning of the life and words of a man they admired, loved but never entirely understood. And Gibney, despite his best efforts, never seems to find the specific watch spring that made Thompson's inner time bomb tick, but he has a hell of a time digging for clues.
In a move the author probably would have liked, the film makes only a cursory nod to his Louisville childhood and cuts right to the good stuff, beginning with the year he spent "imbedded" with the notorious Hell's Angel's motorcycle gang. The resulting book made the Angels famous and made Thompson a star, for better or worse, launching him down the bumpy trail of celebrity that would ultimately consume him. From here the reporter became the story, placing himself directly at the center of the action, devouring mountains of drugs, blurring reality, scoffing at subjectivity and often just plain making shit up. When covering politics, Hunter took sides, like the time he falsely alleged that presidential candidate Sen. Ed Muskie was hooked on a rare Brazilian narcotic, a lie almost as effective as the ones Tricky Dick used against him. Thompson seems to have gotten away with such flagrant abuses based purely on his immense charisma and raw audacity, and as George McGovern's campaign manager puts it "he was the least factual, but the most accurate."
The tributes here are endless: Tom Wolfe, Johnny Depp and Jimmy Carter all line up to sing his praises, even Jimmy Buffett puts down his margarita long enough earn some sorely needed cool points. Conservative pit bull Pat Buchanan was truly charmed by the guy, and speaks with bonhomie and awe about the wit that Hunter often used to eviscerate him and the rest of the Nixon administration.
One of the lone dissenters is Hunter's first wife Sandy, who knew better than most what a miserable bastard he could be, and could see more clearly through the fog of hype. Indeed, Hunter spent a very long time clinging to the margins as a fall-down drunk, living off his former glory, an ugly truth that Gibney would rather gloss over so he can return to the halleluiah chorus.
Such "Weren't the old days neat" counterculture cheerleading does get a little tired, as does the '60s standards soundtrack, and rings a bit hollow when delivered from an ivory corporate tower by Rolling Stone founder and goob Jann Wenner, decked out in his finest mogul power suit. In the end Hunter S. Thompson hit harder and pushed further than his peers could follow, and, as the film argues, we could still use an old rebel like him calling out the edge.
Opens Friday, July 11, at the Main Art Theatre, 188 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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