Gonzo Review: Hunter, 1972 and Today

I watched Gonzo yesterday -- twice. (Make that three times, once to be able to write this post.) Details of the film about Hunter S. Thompson that opened nationally on July 4th are in my earlier post here.

The first time I watched it on a personal level. The second time I watched it for some political and historical comparisons to today. My thoughts on both are below. [More...]

As a prelude, the film opens with Hunter writing on the morning of 9/11 about the planes going into the Twin towers. Johnny Depp reads it aloud -- really classic Hunter. The film then moves to the mid to late-60's, Chicago '68, Hubert Humphrey. You can read any number of film reviews for those sections and for details on those interviewed in the movie, from Tom Wolfe, Jann Wenner, Jimmy Buffett, Pat Robertson, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter to Hunter's ex-wife Sandy, son Juan, my favorite Sheriff, Bob Braudis and of course, his second wife and my good friend, Anita. (Also see the New York Times review.)

After that, we get to the 1972 campaign, with George McGovern running on a platform of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. He was for amnesty for draft dodgers, a cut in the defense budget, he was pro-choice and pro-women's rights. (Hunter covered the campaign for Rolling Stone from Dec. 1971, writing in campaign diary style.)[More...]

McGovern says in the film he's sick of the old men in Washington sitting around air-conditioned rooms and dreaming up wars our young kids can die in.

Hunter hated Hubert Humprhey and Ed Muskie, in large part for supporting Mayor Daley in Chicago during and following the 1968 convention. Chicago galvanized Hunter. He called Humphrey a "treacherous, gutless old war hero." He blasted Nixon continuously from his "barbie doll wife" and children to his being "a cheap crook and mercilous war criminal" who "slithered into the White House." He was "so crooked he needed servants to screw on his pants in the morning."

Hunter focused his rage on Muskie, who was competing with Humphrey and McGovern for the nomination. He even made stuff up about him. Like a rumor about Muskie's being treated with a strange Brazilian drug called Ibogaine. Amazingly, Rolling Stone published it. The rumor began to spread, and Hunter started writing that all Muskie's strange behaviors were the result of his being treated with Ibogaine. Pretty funny stuff. Then Hunter said he made the rumor up, pointing out he never said it was true, only that it was a rumor and would explain his behavior..

Others interviewed in the film say Hunter initially didn't think McGovern could win, he was just along for the ride. And then, McGovern picked up steam. He realized McGovern might have a chance.

But McGovern became mainstream, going from Rolling Stone to the cover of Time and Newsweek. He got the 1972 Democratic nomination in Miami.

McGovern seemed to be a lock, for a week or so, until July 13 when he started to stumble. The biggest thing that went wrong: His choice of Thomas Eagleton for the vice presidency. Eagleton, it turned out, had been hospitalized for depression and treated with electroshock therapy.

Eagleton was the peace offering to the establishment that Muskie or Humphrey would have chosen. Hunter turned on McGovern, calling him a compromiser and a sell-out.

Finally, Eagleton stepped aside. It made McGovern look like a waffler. The campaign never recovered. McGovern complains that the press over-focused on his mishandling of Eagleton rather than the issues of the day like the war and Watergate.

In the film, McGovern gives a rather lame excuse for choosing and sticking by Eagleton. Gary Hart has a better explanation, but in essence, it's that politics is about compromise and it's unrealistic to expect anything else.

Hunter lost his appetite for writing about the election. He wrote that on election day, he'd get out of bed and go to the poling place and vote for McGovern but then he'd go right back home and go to bed and watch tv.

And of course, Nixon won by a landslide. According to reporter Tim Crouse, Hunter went from mockery to rage and then despair. Crouse also makes the point that in many ways, the nightmare we are in today with Bush is the same as the nightmare we were in back then.

Hunter later said it was a tragedy that McGovern lost because he really understood what this country could have been.

That's the end of any political comparisons I see between then and now. My point: I think Hunter would jump on a candidate who moved to the center after campaigning on leftist platforms and exciting unprecedented numbers of young voters to become engaged in politics.

Anita has a good post today on Hunter and the Politics of "We" -- she'll also have an article on this at Huffington Post later tonight or tomorrow.

The film portrays Hunter as then becoming disillusioned with politics. But he was blown away by a speech Carter gave to lawyers and judges on law day in May, 1974. The speech was about the defects in our judicial system. Carter quoted Bob Dylan "I ain't going to work on Maggie's farm no more." He criticized the lawyers for blocking an ethics bill. He blasted them and the bar association for their treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hunter said the speech changed his life. He wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone endorsing Carter. He went around the country supporting Carter, playing the speech.

Oddly, the film drops the subject here and switches gears to complaints by Hunter's ex-wife and a few others about Hunter's drug use and how a trip to Africa to cover the Ali-Forman fight started a decline that they claim lasted the rest of his life. (As Anita points out Hunter wrote more in the last five years of his life than he did the 15 years before that. His ESPN columns Hey Rube were terrific writing. He also published his second volume of letters and another book, Kingdom of Fear.)

One fun section of the movie is Hunter's run for Sheriff in Aspen. The film is worth seeing for that section alone. His platform was land use (anti-development)and drug reform. Drugs should be free and those who sold it for money should be publicly shamed on the courthouse lawn.

My favorite single shot in the movie: Keith Richards entering Hunter's kitchen with a hat, black and white scarf and huge smile. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stand in Hunter's kitchen again without thinking of that shot. If I can find a screen shot, I'll post it.

Minor complaints with the film: Too much of Hunter's ex-wife Sandy and not enough Anita or Juan for my taste. It makes sense on one level since the film concentrates on the 60's to 80's when Sandy was married to him, but she makes a lot of criticisms about the final years of Hunter's life when she wasn't around him and Anita disagrees strongly with her assessment.

Hunter's ex wife is wrong, wrong, wrong, on this. John Nichols from the Nation (who wasn't too lazy to research Hunter's later work) has already said that some of Hunter's most astute political writing is tucked away in his sports writing after 2000. Most of you already know, if you had paid attention, that Hunter wrote more in the last 5 years of his life than he had in the previous 15 combined.

....Some journalists will never accept the fact that Hunter GOT AWAY WITH IT. He wrote what he wanted and when he wanted for his entire career and never sold out an ounce of his soul. He had fun, he moved mountains, and surrounded himself with those that loved him. He was sexy (even for the short time he was in a wheelchair!), smart and productive all the way to the end. Those of you reviewers and "friends", ex girlfriends, and jealous ex editors who can't accept the beauty that was Hunter, it's time you step aside.

Also the sound track is pretty lame. There are plenty of better '60s hits they could have used. Although ending the film with Warren Zevon's "Send Lawyers, Guns and Money" brought a big smile to my face, remembering how much Hunter loved criminal defense lawyers.

Bottom line: I liked the parts of the film about Hunter's writing and politics, the photography and videos and the historical perspective. I didn't like the portrayal of Hunter as a has-been or failure at the end of his life and I don't think it's accurate. It doesn't match my recollection of him during his last two years (the only years I knew him) nor does Anita, who knew him best during the last five years of his life, agree.

My recommendation: By all means, see the film. But then read or re-read Hunter's writings. They remain both brilliant and a great read.

< Sen. Church v. Sen. Obama | On Flip Flops And Contrast >
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  • Display: Sort:
    Looking for change all over again (5.00 / 3) (#1)
    by Prabhata on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 12:59:39 AM EST
    Although there are similarities between those who support Obama and those who supported McGovern, there are also many deep differences.  The main is that McGovern was a better candidate than Obama.  McGovern went down in flames but he maintained his positions, unlike Obama, who is all over the place and has no respectable experience.  Maybe that's why Obama does so very poorly with my generation.


    He sure hasn't reached out to us (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by Jeralyn on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 01:11:37 AM EST
    with remarks like these:

    One of the saddest episodes in our history was the degree to which returning vets from Vietnam were shunned, demonized and neglected by some because they served in an unpopular war. Too many of those who opposed the war in Vietnam chose to blame not only the leaders who ordered the mission, but the young men who simply answered their country's call. Four decades later, the sting of that injustice is a wound that has never fully healed, and one that should never be repeated.

    As Politico said:

    Not only is Obama underlining his generational distance from the boomers, but he's also reaching out to swing voters with a back of the hand at the cultural left.

    But, he's better than McCain. So maybe like Hunter, we'll vote and then go home and go to bed and watch tv.

    Please repost your comment without the overly long link. If you can't figure out how to link, use tinyurl.com. Thanks.


    How long does the left tolerate (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by zfran on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 01:18:34 AM EST
    his movement to the center and beyond to lure and pander for that vote. If a candidate knows he has your votes, no matter what, he doesn't change. Someone posted that they will hold their nose and vote Obama. Aren't we all tired of this? How far does Obama go where ya say, can't vote for him anymore.

    At first when (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jgarza on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 08:18:04 AM EST
    I read this I was confused, about who "us."  After I reread I figured it out.

    I think this is a legitimate criticism.  His message of change in the Dem party was aimed toward boomer age liberals.  

    I understand why some of his lines of attacks have been offensive.


    But also, imo, based on ignorance of the 60s (5.00 / 0) (#12)
    by BackFromOhio on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 01:32:42 PM EST
    What part of the 1960s civil rights and
    anti-Communist wars bolstering petty dictators
    does Obama reject?  That historically it took some real conflict to achieve goals now taken for granted? Some strong partisan stands to say that people of all races should have the right to ride at the front of a bus, sit wherever at lunch counters and vote?  

    His 'Hey Rube' (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jackson Hunter on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 06:59:49 AM EST
    columns were really under appreciated.  I remember reading him on 9/11 in my office and thinking "Yep, nailed it again."  I think people confused his physical breakdown and sometimes broken speech for a breakdown of his mind, which is a common mistake.

    Why would the Director trash the guy by giving his Ex-wife (yeah, no grudges there, eh?) so much time unless it somehow reflected on his writing?  Just more paparazzi Bull Spit I suppose.  And it makes no Marketing sense, it is really only his true devotees who are going to seek out this movie, so I just don't get it.  The guy is going out of the way to offend his base...wait a minute...(places tinfoil sleuthing cap on tightly)...this sounds like someone I have heard of.  Just where was Sen. Obama when this film was being made?  (He certainly wasn't in the Senate.)  Was this put out by WORM Productions?  The Nation needs to know! /snark

    I still want to see it though, thanks for the review Jeralyn.


    Great post.... (none / 0) (#13)
    by oldpro on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 05:21:22 PM EST
    Looking forward to the film thanks to the trailer and your comments.

    I look back with 'fear and loathing' to '68 and '72...and that is in large part why I cannot do this again - face doing this again - with Obama driving the Democrats bus off the cliff.

    In my book, he isn't fit to shine George McGovern's shoes...much less his combat boots...or Hunter Thompson's either...

    Just sayin'....I'm with Hunter.  PUMA

    please do not shill for puma here (none / 0) (#14)
    by Jeralyn on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 09:07:26 PM EST
    or your comments will be deleted. Your opinion is one thing, but using TL as an advocacy site or organizing ground for movements we do not endorse is not allowed. Thanks.

    OK. Agreed. (none / 0) (#15)
    by oldpro on Sat Jul 05, 2008 at 10:22:52 PM EST