Okay, so it's kind of a no-brainer. Then again, the brilliant, off-the-wall author of Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and plenty of other vivid chronicles of the 60's and 70's was an irascible pro-gun maverick who liked to keep people -- especially his editors -- guessing.
I bring all this up because I just saw Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the new documentary by Alex Gibney. (It comes out Friday.) Gibney, as you may recall, made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. He also won an Oscar this year for Taxi to the Dark Side, his exposé of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military in the War on Terror. So he's no political slouch. And after two and a half years making a movie about Thompson, who died in 2005, he felt pretty confident declaring Obama would have been his man:
"He was a Bobby Kennedy guy, he was a McGovern guy. He liked the idealists, the people who urge us to reach for a better possibility, rather than the fear-mongers like McCain who say, 'We gotta be afraid,' and 'Trust me, I'll protect you from the bad guys,'" Gibney told me at a pre-screening gathering in New York last week.
Perhaps to a fault, Thompson was one to pick sides. He savaged McGovern's Democratic opponents in the 1972 campaign, which he covered for Rolling Stone and later devoted a book to. "There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while," Thompson wrote. And he helped sink the Muskie campaign with a report (fictitious, it was found, after the damage had been done) that the Maine senator got regular drug fixes from a shady Brazilian doctor. He only wrote Muskie was rumored to be hooked on Ibogaine, Thompson tells a talk-show host in archival footage in the film. "Which is true," he adds. "I started the rumor."
Thompson, as Brian Williams notes in an on-air eulogy early in Gonzo, was a "complex walking monument to misbehavior." (Just after I talked to Gibney, Tom Wolfe recalled the time he invited Thompson out to lunch in New York. His guest blasted a marine-distress siren in the restaurant.) But even if there's no one like Thompson in today's press corps, not by a longshot, the current political moment does have more than a few things in common with that one.
"First of all, there's a war at the heart of it," Gibney pointed out. "McGovern wants to end the war, Obama wants to end the war. There's this sense of a misguided mission overseas, and there's a tremendous rumbling all about that. And then there's this fight for the nation's soul, between this great sense of idealism and possibility and then also this fear and loathing, this darkness, this 'Fuck 'em, we're gonna go rip their lungs out' kind of thing."
Gibney, who edited Taxi and Gonzo in side-by-side cutting rooms, has been alternating his film subjects lately, between Bush-era corruption and 60's idealism. "I think it's important to kind of cleanse the palate," he explained. At the moment, he's working on a documentary about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He's also trying to secure distribution for one about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "I thought I was making a film about a bad apple, and it turned out to be about a rotten barrel," he said. It may take several bathtubs full of Kesey Kool-Aid to wash that one down.