Documentary showcases Hunter S. Thompson

Surveying the feeble field of so-called journalists covering a U.S. presidential race that, by any measure, should not even be close, it may be hard for under-40s to imagine a moment when any writer could make a profound mark on America’s moral landscape.

For Alex Gibney, therefore, it felt like a necessary gesture to make Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, opening here tomorrow. The veteran filmmaker wanted to remind his fellow citizens that such a thing was not only possible but could also be entertaining.

“He tackled journalism from a very different angle,” thet director explains from his office in New York City. “He broke all the rules when the rules were entirely to the advantage of the people in power. It’s no different now, so that’s why it’s useful to reconsider Hunter, particularly in his heyday.”

Thompson’s bíªte noire and, in some ways, alter ego, was then-president Richard Nixon, a kind of George Bush as played by Bela Lugosi. But later, in the Ronald Reagan era, the far right—exemplified by con artists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—learned how to game the system to make democracy (and the media) work exclusively for them.

“Yes, they figured out how to use decency in an indecent way, which is why you hear all this crap about ”˜fairness’ in news coverage today. Look at that absurd situation with ”˜Jeff Gannon’, where the White House brought in a male prostitute to pass as a reporter so they could plant softball questions for Bush.

The thing about Hunter is that he realized there was no point in feigning ”˜objectivity’ when they just use that against you.”

Consequently, the usually stoned and always outrageously attired writer (look for Johnny Depp on-screen wearing one of Thompson’s many hideous shirts) came up with a toxic brew of hard-nosed reporting and hyperbolic fabulism, used to devastating effect on Nixon and rivals for Democrat George McGovern’s candidacy in the 1972 presidential election.

“He was lucky, of course, that he had a unique platform in Rolling Stone.”¦The problem today is that there are no main sources from which people get their news. The whole system is fragmented, even if there are just a few corporate owners, so you can never get a key moment as you did when [CBS anchorman] Walter Cronkite turned against the war in Vietnam.”

In the film, which features interviews with former president Jimmy Carter and a surprisingly eloquent Pat Buchanan, Gibney doesn’t have time to delve into the tradition of muckraking press observers, but their presence is implied. This poses an essential question: is there room left for such mangy buffalo to roam in the sterile fields of American infotainment?

“Outcry does make a difference,” says the director, who earlier this year brought us Taxi to the Dark Side, about U.S. torture policy. “In a curious way, the films, which I edited at the same time, helped each other get made.”

Well, sure. It never hurts to have a solution standing next to your problem—even if it keeps falling down.

Read our review of Gonzo: The life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson