Gonzo in retrospect

On Saturday we went to see Alex Gibney’s documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which was simply wonderful. It’s a warts-and-all portrait which does not shy away from Thompson’s amazingly powerful instinct for self-destruction. I’m old enough to regard him as a contemporary, but Gibney’s film will give younger generations an insight into how remarkable a writer and personality Gonzo was. What I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time (partly, I suppose, because in those pre-Internet days, very few people on this side of the Atlantic had access to Rolling Stone magazine) was how moralistic (in the best sense) he was. I hadn’t realised, for example, how committed he was to George McGovern’s presidential campaign (as tragically flawed, in its way, as Al Gore’s in 2000). And how he was largely responsible for catapaulting Jimmy Carter from the obscurity of a Southern governorship to a successful presidential candidate.

The film is thus very informative. It is also outrageously funny, intriguing and moving without being sentimental. Johnny Depp reads from Thompson’s works (and is revealed as a friend and loyal admirer). And by using Thompson’s writing as voiceover, it reminds one of what a terrific writer he could be. At his best he was like Hemingway without the macho crap.

One of his great gifts was that he was a maestro of beginnings. Anyone who writes for a living will envy him that because the toughest thing is to find an arresting way of opening a piece. I know from my own experience, for example, that if I wake up on a Friday morning with a good first sentence for my newspaper column, then the job is half done. Thompson had a way of starting that took you by the scruff of the neck and dumped you, rubbing the sleep out of your psyche, into the middle of things.

LATER: Critics were less impressed by the film than I was. The great Philip French, for example, was relatively detached:

Gibney’s elaborately textured film draws on much home movie footage, new interviews, old TV appearances and clips from the feature films inspired by Thompson’s antics (he’s played by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It’s often hilarious and captures the spirit of the time, both in its early hopes and its inevitable disillusionment. Yet it’s a sad movie and somehow inadequate in its lack of true pity or understanding. Thompson’s first wife, Sondi, mother of his son Juan, put up with him for 20 years, until his excesses and egotism forced her to leave, and it is she alone who says: “I think his story was tragic.”

And it is she who demurs from a general agreement that his suicide, like that of Hemingway, was somehow a courageous act. In this documentary, we watch a man go insane and destroy himself, his final act of madness being the funeral he organised in which his ashes were sent into the skies with red, white and blue fireworks from a self-aggrandising tower he’d designed with the help of Steadman.

Peter Bradshaw was marginally more positive:

Young radicals become old reactionaries, of course, although unlike many gung-ho liberals, Thompson never lost his nerve and supported the military adventures of George W Bush. His uncool male-pattern baldness made him resemble Philip Larkin, and that cigarette-holder was a weirdly bohemian, almost Cowardian affectation, which passes unremarked by Gibney or anyone else. In the end, a lot of his work is like a massive improvised guitar solo. Maybe you had to be there. But he emerges from this film as a real American original.

And today one of my colleagues, an English don, gave me a hard time today for being hard on Hemingway. I have an awful feeling he may have been right. Sigh.