‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

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I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Zero Days’ Interview with Eric Chien


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Alex Gibney is the most prolific documentarian working in movies today, and his latest documentary, “Zero Days,” may prove to be his scariest yet. Its main focus is on Stuxnet, the self-replicating computer virus invented by the United States and Israel to infiltrate and sabotage the Iranian nuclear centrifuges at Natanz. This movie reveals that the virus was part of a massive clandestine operation which involved the CIA, the NSA, the United States military and Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad to build and launch secret cyber bombs that could plunge the world into a devastating series of attacks which could shut down electricity, poison water supplies and turn cars, planes and trains into deadly weapons. But what’s especially terrifying is how the use of this virus could happen without anyone, even our own government, knowing who is responsible.

I recently got to speak with Eric Chien, one of the people Gibney interviewed extensively for “Zero Days.” Chien is a Distinguished Engineer and the Technical Director of the Security Technology and Response division at Symantec. He was one of the lead authors of Symantec’s groundbreaking research on the Stuxnet virus and has since become one of the foremost authorities on it. I first asked him about how the virus relates to a number of devices or programs we have seen in various science fiction movies.

Zero Days Eric Chien

Ben Kenber: When I look at the Stuxnet virus, I can’t help but think about Skynet in the “Terminator” movies or the black box in “Escape from L.A.” or Joshua/WOPR in “War Games.” These things came to mind especially one I was told that the Stuxnet virus is autonomous, meaning that no operator commanded it to attack in that it attacks on its own without human intervention. What are companies like Symantec doing to contain this virus, and is it even possible to contain this virus?

Eric Chien: There is no such thing as 100% security. If anyone else comes to you that is trying to sell you something and they say you are 100% protected, you should just run away. The thing is it’s a cat and mouse game. And to be honest it’s not even the most sophisticated and complex things that can have the biggest impact. Some things that can actually be very trivial and totally unsophisticated can have a huge impact. We’ve seen, especially coming out of North Korea, a lot of wiping attacks, and what that means is that they get a piece of malicious software in your machine and they just erase all your data. This is a very simple piece of malware to create. It could literally be 10 lines of code to get on and wipe your machines, and that could have a huge impact. We saw it have a huge impact in Saudi Arabia where their networks were totally wiped. Basically South Korean broadcasters and all their biggest banks, all wiped all at the same time. Obviously it was North Korea. 99% of all the malicious software we get is cybercrime, people trying to make money essentially. Right now we are seeing a huge uptake in what we call ransomware, and they are not even going after individuals anymore like they used to. Now they are going after corporations or entities, in particular hospitals. Hollywood Presbyterian got hit by a ransomware attack where the attackers got in with a simple program that basically just encrypted all their files, and they said if you want your files back you have to pay us. They held their data for ransom. They (the hospital) paid $17,000 and had to close their hospital, they had to transfer all the patients out, all their MRI machines, nothing was working and they lost all their patient data. So that’s why they had to pay because they didn’t have the backups.

BK: How much did you work with Alex Gibney on the documentary?

EC: Alex and his team, a guy named Javier Botero was his co-producer and a main research got, came in and I sat for five hours for a one on one interview. Then Liam (O’Murchu) came afterwards, five hours, one-on-one interview. And that was it, and then he produced all of that. We have done things where I have sat for 10 hours and got way less out of it, so we were actually quite impressed. They came in very well-prepared. At one point I was talking about something and Javier said, “Oh but that’s Stuxnet .5, isn’t it? The earlier version?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s .5. They were just really, really well prepared and they knew the right questions to ask, and obviously even when I said something wrong at one point he reminded me that I was not talking about the right thing. All the graphics you see of code on the screen are not random pieces of code. They are exactly the pieces of code that we are talking about at the time that they are displayed. After we had done our interviews they came back asking for this and that, and it was really interesting to see how meticulous they were being.

BK: I visited the Symantec office in Culver City and noticed they have a War Room there. Did you ever go in that room to discuss the Stuxnet virus?

EC: Yeah. We were in that War Room, but we actually have a War Room you probably haven’t seen which allows us to do encrypted communications with other offices, and we call it our Halo Room. Basically it’s… It’s hard to describe. Imagine you cut this table in half so you have kind of a half table, and there’s this really big screen that kind of curves in front of you like this and it’s like full HD. The other office has half a table on their side, and so it looks like they really are there. All the sound and audio is all directional, so someone over here you hear them over there. So we use that room more frequently because in our other War Room that we have, it’s just classic teleconference which is great, but this room obviously affords much more interaction.

“Zero Days” opens in Los Angeles and will be available to watch on iTunes starting July 8. I want to thank Eric Chien for taking the time to talk with me.

Click here to visit the “Zero Days” website.