Classic Scene: Alex Gibney’s
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)

American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson’s hatred for president Richard Nixon was well known, but his dealings with and regard for Patrick Buchanan — Nixon’s special consultant, White House speechwriter in the late sixties and throughout much of the Watergate scandal, and staunch conservative — were surprisingly productive and healthy. When he approached Buchanan in 1974 about a piece on the future of American conservatism for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson mentioned having a “certain twisted sympathy for your (personal) stance — if only because of what strikes me as its basic integrity, along with a stylistic brutality that I can appreciate”. Buchanan politely declined, but in his own written reply he joked: “Tell your liberal friends we expect to be treated with all the deference and respect as outlined in the Geneva Conventions on the handling of prisoners of war”.¹ Clearly the two enjoyed a good rapport.

Alex Gibney’s splendid documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson appears to dismiss Buchanan somewhat as a “half crazed Davie Crockett” figure (a phrase Hunter once used to describe him), but at the close of the film something quite wonderful happens. Speaking highly of Hunter’s political acumen in a soundbite which seems to bemoan his egotism, Pat’s interview is interrupted by the roar of a motorcycle in the street forcing the production team to pause momentarily until its fade on the soundtrack. Glancing over at Gibney, who is behind camera, Buchanan loses his composure — “That’s fitting!” he laughs, and with that his interview is complete. The motorcycle sound may have been amplified by the filmmakers in postproduction, but they observed and captured the moment passively, without fakery or re-enactment. Like the cinema of Werner Herzog then, Gibney’s documentary finds meaning through serendipity, discovery and timing. And in its positioning at the very end of the documentary, the scene reminds the viewer of the outlaw biker of Big Sur: Hunter, as phantom, pulling down the foundations of American conservatism and tearing through the rhetoric of modern political discourse.

¹ From, Fear and Loathing in America, The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, (ed.) Douglas Brinkley 2000. Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 573-74, p. 587.
12 December, 2009

Hunter S. Thompson in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado


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