Even though he was a few years older (he was born in 1937), Thompson exemplified that generation in all its insight, high spirit and, well, just plain high-ness. In the 1960s, drugs weren't a means of escape — dropping out meant joining a movement that kicked open the door to civil rights and protested loudly against a war dreamt up by old men for young men to die in (to paraphrase George McGovern's words in the film). Your clothes and the way you wore your hair were political, not fashion statements — and in certain parts of the U.S., you risked your life by looking a certain way. This is the era Thompson moved through. He saw firsthand the rise of a hope that would never completely achieve fruition and the death of the American Dream, and he is one of the defining voices for that time. For those of us who weren't there, Thompson is our visceral, heady guide into this world, with all its insights and flaws intact. This movie documents the man who documented the era, including lots of you-are-there archival footage.
That's not to say that Thompson was typical of his era. He was obsessed with guns and had a hard edge that was never aligned with the loopy concepts of flower power and the Summer of Love. This was a good thing — it enabled him to cut through the bullshit while he was stirring up his own concoctions of truth and fancy (in which the fantasy was often more telling than the facts). The best domumentarians are always in the action while never being completely of it.
The two people who offer the film's most telling statements aren't Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, McGovern or even the first Mrs. Thompson (who does give a unique view of the couple's early, struggling years). They are Thompson's artistic partner in crime, Ralph Steadman and, believe it or not, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who was Nixon's adviser. Even though Buchanan and Thompson's points of view couldn't have been farther apart, it's clear that Buchanan looks back at the feisty journalist with warmth and an honest regret that he is no longer with us. Steadman offers up the same feeling of humanity, although from within the beast, and it makes you realize that for all his insanity (and sometimes because of it), Thompson inspired a rare and deep affection in those around him, even if they didn't always agree with him or his methods.
It's no surprise that Thompson's greatest work ended circa the 1972 presidential election, in which Senator McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon. The American Dream was dead (and incredibly, is even deader today), Viet Nam was still raging and Watergate would prove Thompson right too late to make a real difference. The only thing left was the rise of punk rock, and its nihilistic hopelessness would have no appeal for a man who at the very core of his spirit was an idealist who cared deeply about his country. I think Thompson's heart was broken after Nixon was elected president for the second time, and he did what anyone does when their heart has been smashed one too many times — he dissolved into a life of debauchery and degradation. His 2005 suicide was merely the period at the end of a long ellipsis. Thanks to a generous financial gift from Johnny Depp (who narrates a good portion of the film), Thompson's wild idea of having his ashes shot from a cannon came true. That he came up with this vision decades before his death only shows that he already knew where things were headed.
I've always thought that every generation gets the voices it deserves. And mine has yet to come up with one as combustible and iconic as Hunter S. Thompson.