In 1970 Hunter S. Thompson began a bizarre run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Col., where he ran on the “Freak Power” ticket. The title of Thompson’s ticket is a pushback on the prejudice toward the local hippies from his opponent Carol Whitmire.
Coming on the heels of the documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” which examined the same subject, writer/director Bobby Kennedy III’s “Fear and Loathing in Aspen” inserts itself into the small club of narrative films that go to the heart of Hunter S. Thompson’s mad genius.
It is difficult to get a proper cinematic handle on the turbulent later sixties and early seventies and it is even harder, nay, near impossible, to get Hunter S. Thompson right.
Johnny Depp did well with the role but his portrayal was the over-the-top, cartoonish version. Bill Murray did a better take on the gonzo writer. His performance was in tune to the man himself and while the film (“Where the Buffalo Roam”) was a miss, Murray was near-perfect.
In “Fear” Jay Bulger takes on the aviator glasses, cigarette holder, and wildly eccentric personality, earning his place at the table with Depp and Murray.
Bulger resembles Thompson and he gets his mannerisms down without overdoing things. He pretty much gets the voice down as well. It is a committed performance that captures Thompson’s wit and frustrations with authority and the state of his country.
The supporting roles include Cheryl Hines and Laird Macintosh (as Thompson’s tight-assed opponents) doing memorable work of them.
Director Bobby Kennedy III and his cinematographers Mark David and Ian Quill capture the time convincingly. The design is filled with 16mm designed shots and the trippy split-screen conceit used by many filmmakers at the time. The budget was not big enough to pay for actual songs from the era, that which would have brought home the zeitgeist of the time. Wayne Kramer, John Paul Roney, and The Futurebirds wrote an original score laced with the acid sound of the era.
The director captures some madcap moments, as his focus is on Thompson’s determination to expose the close-minded hypocrisy and bigotry of those in charge and to fight for police reform and the purity of the Colorado environment (both relevant themes today). There are many good scenes where Bulger captures Thompson’s frustrations and drug-fueled ideologies. The idea to use Hunter S. Thompson’s actual voice (from his own recordings regarding that time) to guide the film from scene to scene was a good one.
Whereas Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” captures the madness of the man and Art Linson’s “Where the Buffalo Roam” allowed Bill Murray to give a pitch perfect impression of him, “Fear and Loathing in Aspen” gets to the heart of Thompson, like glimpses of Thompson with his wife and son, and all the pathos of an election night. The human side of Thompson really shines through, that is the way the author would have wanted it, in all likelihood.
“Fear and Loathing in Aspen” is perhaps the best of the Hunter S. Thompson films due to its genuine portrayal. Yes, Thompson drank a lot and took even more drugs. He loved guns, drink, hallucinogens, the written word, and America. The man was a complicated genius and Kennedy III’s film captures that rare glimpse of the peaceful soul held within a man who did not want you to see it.
Hunter S. Thompson existed in a time when minds and eyes were opening and those whose voices had been silenced were taking to the streets or the page to protest an America that was on fire.
Thompson’s is a unique voice in journalism. He lived and he lived free. He dove in headfirst and took on the bastards that would put his country in jeopardy. This film is a great reminder of the man and all he fought against.
As the end credits tell, “This is a fictional story with fictional characters adapted from a true story.” There is no better way to accurately describe any film about Hunter S. Thompson. Perhaps this one would make him smile.