Gonzo: The Life and Death of the Last American Patriot

Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Edge...there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

—Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

Hunter S. Thompson is the last, the ultima, of a long list of American writing patriots. His life took him over the edge of understanding and back again many times over the years. He died of a crushed spirit sometime in the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, his heart would finally stop beating after shooting himself in the head. This is the message of the movie Gonzo, a documentary of Thompson’s life and writing, which opened on July 4th weekend.

Directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, the film features confidants and contemporaries like Thompson’s first wife Sondi Wright, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine Jann Wenner, presidential candidate George McGovern, McGovern’s campaign chairman and former Senator Gary Hart, writer Tom Wolfe, and the artist who made visual Thompson’s “Gonzo” prose, Ralph Steadman. To any Hunter S. Thompson fan, the stories recounted by these notables will be familiar. The articles and essays that would become Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and The Great Shark Hunt were all retold here, replete with great video images and a pumping classic rock soundtrack.

The film doesn’t hold many surprises for those familiar with the Doctor’s work, although I am not sure if there is enough for a Thompson novice to get a handle on his character. But Gonzo isn’t a biographical picture in the strict sense—it is a vehicle to explore Thompson’s insights as written and lived. Although covering the journalist’s writing zenith from the mid-1960s through mid-’70s, the documentary is not as much an exploration of that time as a meditation on this one. What happened then, through Thompson’s aviator-framed eyes, serves as a springboard for discussion of what is happening now.

In Campaign Trail ’72, Thompson writes, “Of all the men that have run for president in the twentieth century, only George McGovern truly understood what a monument America could be to the human race.” McGovern was a come-from-behind candidate who quickly turned into a hopeless one, losing by a landslide to Nixon in his reelection bid. His legacy has become encapsulated by the shills of cable news and print who reference the former U.S. Senator and 1972 Democratic nominee only in his abysmal failure as a candidate. Anyone running for president since, especially a Democrat, has been compared to him when they display a lack of cynicism and actually make a principled stance about war or the environment, or criticize the country’s laissez-faire economic policies. In this way, Thompson’s assessment continued to prove correct. No widely popular presidential candidate after 1972 has dared to be substantively anti-war or strongly critical of corporate interests. This nation’s leaders have no interest in understanding the “monument” that the United States could have been. They are scavengers, scrambling and stealing what is left for themselves before it is all gone.

Thompson’s friends refer to him as a “patriot” repeatedly in the film. HST believed that America’s strength was the “freaks,” his term for the drugheads, hippies, outlaws, and all the other marginalized people on the outskirts of respectable society. His patriotism was of the old style that, with the recent passing of comedian George Carlin, is largely extinct today. He was a patriot in that he believed that the government of the United States was always founded to serve the needs of the little ones, the unwanted and unwashed. No one believes this anymore. The word “patriot” is used where loyalist used to apply. There is no “dream” or “idea” of America in 2008. The patriots of today are merely supporters of the ambition of America. Military assertiveness, economic supremacy, and cultural as well as political homogeneity are the aspirations of this state and the meaning of its creed.

This imperial march is as old as humankind; it is the relentless charge against which Thompson struggled in his writing. The march became triumphal after Nixon’s reelection. It became normalized in our relationship with the Soviet Union as Reagan dubbed it “the evil empire.” Imperialism revised our history by the time George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton took the helm.

It would finally emerge as the stated and sole agenda of the United States with the “War on Terror” under the current government. Gonzo reminds viewers that Thompson predicted this in his espn.com Page 2 column, which appeared a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001: “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.”

“Peace for our time,” was the misguided hope of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after he surrendered the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938. In the U.S., we have resigned ourselves to a “peace” that puts this government at permanent war with the rest of the world as well as its citizens. When George W. Bush was reelected with over 59 million votes, the old fortresses fell to the imperial march. Foolishness would rule, and the great Republic would finally perish under its weight. Four months after that election, Thompson made his death corporeal; another old knight following his ancestors into the Elysian Fields.

Now, the best we hope for is a well-managed empire that cooperates with foreign powers and cares for our natural resources. “Change we can believe in” would be far better than what we have now, but far from a restored republic. Those seeking real change are apocalyptic about the fate of this particular nation state. They live off the grid, reject the industrial food economy, suspect the healthcare system, shut off the TV, and “stop shopping.”

In Gonzo, a recording of Thompson and Chicano attorney Oscar Acosta in 1970 at a taco stand in the Nevada desert captures this reality. Lou, the cook, tells the duo that they were probably sent on a wild goose chase looking for “the American Dream.” He guesses: “That has to be the old Psychiatrist’s Club, but the only people who hang out there is a bunch of pushers, peddlers, uppers and downers, and all that stuff.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Acosta replies, “is it a night-time place or is it an all day…”

Lou says, “Oh, honey, this never stops. But it’s not a casino.”

Thompson’s prose pops. It hits hard and at times moves a person. It doesn’t sound dated, but there is something in it that seems out of time. The movie reminded me that it is the belief in the American Dream that seems dated. Today, after Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and the Bushes; after Grenada, Panama, “Scud Stud” Iraq, and quagmire Iraq; after Waco and Gitmo; after Bhopal and Valdez, the idea of the U.S. as a beacon of hope is more myth than fact.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson describes the character Dr. Gonzo, a pseudonym/sketch of Acosta, as “too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Thompson was similar. Like Acosta, he was also “one of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production.”

Gonzo ends with footage of Thompson’s ashes being shot out of a giant red and black cannon in the shape of the two-thumbed “Freak Power” emblem that became a sort of signature for Thompson. It is an absurd ending to an absurd but important life. I wish that some of that “Freak Power” had defeated the monsters we still live with today. Watching the film reminded me that our fight is different than Thompson’s and yet eerily similar.

The American Dream doesn’t exist, but the ideas on which it was built remain: freedom to live as we wish, the desire for every person to be treated as a human being, a respect and appreciation of the natural world around us, and the peace to enjoy it all. The dream that did not start with the United States—and will not end with it—can never die.

The last patriot is dead; long live the last patriot.

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