Hey, there. Yeah, it’s Meg again, still filling in for Steve. How was your holiday weekend? I had a pretty good one, too. Saw a great documentary on Saturday. Oh, I definitely recommend it. How often can you catch a flick that includes the likes of Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe and Johnny Depp talking about a drug-addled, freak-movement journalist?
Sure, I was sad when I heard Dr. Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005. But I was downright depressed after seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
While touching, it wasn’t the on-camera keening of his friends (and enemies) that got me. It was the portions of film dedicated to Thompson’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago and the 1972 presidential election.
These were pivotal moments in Thompson’s life. While he watched the American Dream die off in the deserts of Las Vegas, he saw the death of the promise of both democracy and Flower Power in 1968 and 1972.
My reaction to the part about 1968 was largely visceral. I flinched repeatedly just watching the savage beatings Mayor Daley’s police force meted out in the streets of the beautiful city I call home.
I finally read Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 during primary season this year. It made me feel a lot like reading It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in the current political climate. The plot points aren’t the same, but almost all of the emotions are.
I’ll admit to not being alive in 1968 or 1972, and to the fact that I may just be projecting. Either way, this new documentary brought all the feelings I felt reading Fear and Loathing… flooding back.
The renewal of hope in Thompson’s literary voice when George McGovern actually seems to have a chance at the nomination was so familiar to me. And, despite his somewhat childish glee, one can perceive an ominous guardedness in the way he writes about it. The book is a compilation that was originally written serially for publication in Rolling Stone, so besides some minor footnotes, there’s no indication Thompson knows what’s about to hit him until McGovern’s campaign implodes just after the convention.
At first, Thompson throws a temper tantrum about McGovern’s supposed sell out to the old-style Democratic machine. Observing Thompson slowly coming to terms with what you know is coming (Nixon’s re-election) is painful. But his sorrow reveals the depth of his patriotic zeal. The filmmakers wisely chose this excerpt from his September 1972 entry in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 :
“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes… understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose… Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”
At one point in the documentary, the screen splits. On one side shows footage from the Vietnam war; the other side shows our current “police actions” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The makers of Gonzo aren’t the first to make the comparison by a long shot. But the stark juxtaposition had me curled up in the fetal position in the darkened theater.
After the multiple tragedies of the late 60s, Thompson yearned for change and a candidate he could believe in. Instead, along came Watergate and the country sank into a deep political cynicism from which it may only now be recovering.
Today’s tragedies are less blatant and identifiable. Al Gore wasn’t assassinated, just politically beaten and mugged. FEMA didn’t start riots in New Orleans with billy clubs and police arsenals, but our government left hundreds to die needlessly. Our My Lai comes in cloudy little doses called Abu Ghraib and Haditha.
It’s almost as if someone took the tapestry of recent history and washed it in boiling hot water until the colors ran together and faded, hoping no one would notice we’re wearing the same outfit as before.
I desperately want to believe this election will pull us out of our current malaise. But I’m also afraid of getting my hopes up. For some reason I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t the drugs or alcohol that dulled Thompson’s once-sharp literary sensibilities, but the sheer bummer of it all. And its thoughts like those that get the empathetic coward in me all worked up. I don’t want Barack Obama to be today’s Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern.
Above all, the movie gives the indisputable impression of Thompson as passionate patriot. And despite its long-for-a-documentary run time, the film leaves the viewer wanting more. Maybe that’s because it’s times like these that really scream out for a little Gonzo.