Art Reviews and Commentary

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

The second cinematographic creation to be made about Hunter S. Thompson’s patriotic and historically important campaign for the sheriff of Aspen in the last twelve months, the previous one being Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, Fear and Loathing in Aspen captures the same sanctity of the American spirit which animated Thompson throughout his career, for he was on a mission: to tell the world that the American Dream was dead, and damn us all, he was right. Directly or indirectly, through his writing, Thompson follows up that conclusion with what should the rest of us do next: return to nature and live as wild and as free as possible. Amen Hunter!

Written and directed by Bobby Kennedy III, the grandson of RFK and grandnephew of JFK, the film is a drama-documentary in which Thompson is played by Jay Bulger, Peggy Clifford (HST’s campaign manager) is played by Amaryllis Fox and Sheriff Whitmire is played by Laird Macintosh. Fear and Loathing in Aspen traces the 1970 political adventure in a traditional Americana aesthetic frame, capturing the soul of Pitkin County – a small, intimate place, surrounded by virgin woods and wild animals – as well as some of the essential moments that made the Freak Power campaign famous.

The action begins by depicting Hunter attempting to make justice for himself by screaming at a cowboy to keep his cows off his property. To this request, the cowboy tells Thompson to erect a fence if he doesn’t like the hungry beasts grazing on his land. A mundane scene perhaps, but essential nonetheless for it captures one of the core ills of modern society: the lack of respect for another’s property, privacy and, ultimately, autonomy.

The same despicable behaviour is displayed by Pitkin Mining Corporation which was disposing of toxic waste in the local river, arguably without a care in the world. Hunter discovered what the corporation was doing during a trip to get water from what was once a reinvigorating water source. Naturally, as a member of the National Rifle Association, Thompson looks at the large, grey and ugly business buildings from the bank of the river, kneeling down with his scope rifle pointed at it as Jay Bulger quotes from Kingdom of Fear:

“Somewhere in the nightmare of failure that is gripping America, the notion of beating the system, by fighting it gave way to the numb conviction that it made more sense in the long run, to flee or to hide than to fight the bastards on anything vaguely resembling their own terms. We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to fear. Fear of war, fear of poverty and fear of reign of terrorism. Fear of getting downsized or fired because of the plunging economy. Fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a sympathiser.”

If the above quote feels too relevant to today’s America, it is because what Thompson wrote half a century ago is our reality now: this is depicted by the current administration’s inclination to treat its citizens as obedient drones, to hide critical information from them, to turn a blind eye to censorship, to demand justice reform for everyone but their political enemies and to come under suspicion of working with the central intelligence apparatus to hunt down journalists it disagrees with.

When Hunter presents evidence of Pitkin Mining Corporation’s reckless behaviour, claiming that it must be breaking some form of statue, the mayor and the county’s sheriff react first by demanding that a citizen of Aspen, as Thompson was, in order to address the town hall’s meeting ought to have made an appointment, underlying the cancer of bureaucracy which has continued to plague American society with ever more viciousness, suffocating the values upon which the nation was founded on that mighty day in July of 1776: autonomy, responsibility, courage and freedom, all of these principles, won through painful sacrifices and rivers of bloodshed, slowly but surely, have been replaced by appointments, long and boring ques, piles of useless documents and social security checks, all in the name of comfort and security while costing nothing more than one’s freedom to make what they see fit of their life.

Not only that, but the government officials assure Thompson that whatever the mining venture is doing is legal, something which the gonzo journalist refuses to accept. Glenn Ricks, the deputy sheriff, gets annoyed by Hunter’s acute sense of justice, which pushed him to demand that his voice is heard in the town hall, and tries to remove him from the meeting. The episode ends with Ricks covered in the dirty sewage water which Thompson collected as evidence and the politically-minded writer gets thrown in jail. It is then when he realises that the “freaks” were incarcerated for almost no reason at all: standing on the sidewalk, playing musical instruments and so on.

Following a short conversation with Clifford, who enlightens Hunter on the voting law in Pitkin County, making it clear to him that he could run for sheriff and change things for the better – it is always, objectively so, better to shift things towards smaller government and corporations and more individual autonomy and tighter communities. The rest is history: the Freak Power campaign was born.

The film isn’t yet an international sensation and, as such, Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t given it a score yet, although its audience has: 100% audience score based on fewer than 50 ratings as of the time of writing this review. Meanwhile, IMBD gives a 5.5 out of 10 rating, based on 227 “star” votes. What can we make of this information? Either that the movie is mediocre or that its subject isn’t of interest to the masses of politically saturated viewers.

If it is the latter, who can blame them: poor people have been impregnated with propaganda for decades and especially during the last five years, since that orange man, the Manhattan property mogul, Donal Trump, took office in the White House, setting in motion a firestorm of venomous hate towards his clownish allure and populist agenda. Now that the somnambulist Joe Biden is at the helm, you would think that things would get back to some sort of normality and politics won’t invade every aspect of your life, as the Democrats would have had you believe if you would have watched CNN or MSNBC for more than two minutes. Wrong again. It’s time to be terrorised by vaccine mandates, fact-checkers’ censorship, indoctrination of your children with racist ideology (known as critical race theory) and by a potential FBI raid of your property. Should you dissent to any of this, as any good patriot would do, you might be labelled as a Nazis and thrown in jail. The machine never stops until it swallows each soul and grinds it up into a perfect paste of submission and dumbness.

However, it might be the former reason, and Fear and Loathing in Aspen may be a mediocre movie in the eyes of those who gave the scores. But what do these supposed movie critics know anyway. After all, they may not be the right audience for it: passionate aficionados of American history, watching with patriotic eyes a drama-documentary about a long gone era when the nation’s citizens could still fight the industrial-military complex (now the industrial-digital-military complex) with dignity and some hope for the future, making the best use of the powerful tool bestowed upon them by the Founding Fathers: their vote.

No, the movie is not mediocre. It may not be Oscar-worthy, but it is far from “just another” film. Simply because it is about one of the few people who, despite concluding that the American Dream died, still believed in the resurrection of America.

Just like The Ballot or the Bomb documentary, Fear and Loathing in Aspen contains many titbits that reveal the hidden character of Hunter S. Thompson as well as the values and vision for which he fought. For example, the film delivers the description of Thompson by James Salter, which I will repeat below:

“Hunter Thompson is a moralist posing as an immoralist. Nixon is an immoralist disguised as a moralist. […] Hunter represents something wholly alien to the other candidates for sheriff: ideas. And sympathy towards the young, generous, grass-oriented society which is making the only serious effort to face the technological nightmare we have created. The only thing against him is that he is a visionary. He wants too pure a world.”

Throughout the film, there are other great lines and scenes which highlight the ethos of Salter’s words. Take for example the scene in jail when Whitmire informs Thompson that he does not make the law, but only enforces it, the journalist draws his attention to the fact that such attitude did not lead anywhere good at Nuremberg, referring of course to the compliance with Nazi law that led to the Holocaust. An insight which is highly relevant today when the toxic gas of fear which continues to be spread by autocrats to create division in society and control how people live.

However, as Arendt argued in her essay, Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship, it is better to suffer than to comply and enforce such laws because one cannot hide behind “the law” when the law is inhumane. If by obeying the law you oppress, in any shape of form, you are better off breaking the law. For this however, you need courage, something which many of today’s citizens seem to be lacking.

Thompson’s attitude of restoring the importance of individual autonomy and of smaller communities which are closer to their natural surroundings, protecting the wild forests and the animals that dwell in them, as well as his animosity towards big cities, big government and big corporation, have led some commentators to place him on the left-side of the political spectrum. However, this is the wrong conclusion.

Hunter was not against structure or order, which are ideas that the right-wing typically defends, but rather against the abuses of power of authorities entrusted to maintain and guard these things (arguably a left-wing position, although in today’s political environment the conservatives and centre-liberals are those who fight the authority of the radical, woke, left). This aspect can also be seen throughout Hunter’s work, always critical of hypocrisy and excesses of political and corporate power.

For example, in his widely acclaimed saga about the biker gang known as Hell’s Angels, Thompson portrays the motorcyclists as they truly were: while maintaining a dose of empathy towards these outlaws (like anyone who loves freedom maintains, because the outlaws are the final frontier against tyranny: when there will be no outlaws, we will have perfect totalitarianism), the father of gonzo journalism was a fierce realist and saw that underneath their recklessness and need for destruction lied an anger with civilised society, with anyone who had something good going on in their lives because the bikers felt unwanted in America. In other words, their paranoia was because they yearned for an order that accepted them. Indeed, the entire internal structure of Hell’s Angels was so orderly that it was fascist, essentially screaming to the world that if its order does not accept them, then they will create their own hierarchies and structures of power.

As such, Thompson never sought to “destroy” the order and structure of American society, but only to point its ills, perhaps in the hope that, somehow, those in positions of authority would do their jobs and begin their patriotic duty of remedying America.

Indeed, his political campaign in Aspen, which ran against both the Democrat and Republican candidates, was to restore order, at least a kind of order in which he believed, a kind of order which enabled more people to live freely but not completely lawlessly for he recognised the need for something to keep citizens in check: the freaks might have been freedom-loving hippies with a “Boston Tea Party” work ethic but were still human beings with vices and excesses. As such, order of some sort and rules to keep that order in place were needed.

“The system has a built-in wipe-out mechanism for dealing with unwanted challengers, political and legal roadblocks, which deny innovation […] but our system of government was in fact designed for change and it was time we made use of that very design.”

Thompson could have very well argued for more radical reforms than legalising drugs and consuming them in a more controlled fashion, given that he witnessed the police brutality against students who were protesting the Vietnam war during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. “I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist and returned a raving beast. For me, that week in Chicago was far worse than the worst bad acid trip I’d even heard rumours about. It permanently altered my brain chemistry…”. However, Hunter, who was already a radical (even by today’s standards), did not do such thing. Rather, he acknowledged that the way to remedy the American society was to reform its institutions, rather than tear them down, including the police which he abhorred.

Ultimately, Fear and Loathing in Aspen highlights the fight to preserve the uniqueness of a small community in the Colorado mountains, trying to defend it from the reckless speed of progress brought by big spenders and land developers which threatened to transform Aspen from and “individual utopia” into a “corporate utopia”. All of this while harnessing the energy of left leaning youngsters. Talk about a conflicting political scenery.  

Saying “stop” to progress (a process and idea which Hunter loathed, calling it bogus) requires courage, courage which comes from patriotism and not from a stupid allegiance to a political party. This dynamic is very well depicted in the film.

However, the 82 minutes cinematographic creation is far from perfect. It commits plenty of minor misdemeanours. For example, the writer could have replaced “GDP”, which sounds too academic and rigid, with “economic growth”. Also, the freaks are called “freeloaders” in the context of “setting up shop” – which is it? Those who read Kingdom of Fear or watched Freak Power understand the point – the hippies’ way of life was not seen as American – but its deliverance could have been clearer. Also, the debate scene where Thompson delivers one of the greatest political speeches in American history (according to me), on that stage, with the head shaved and dressed in black clothing with a shining sheriff star pinned on his chest, is too short to do justice to the event.

Besides these faults, Fear and Loathing in Aspen is a drama-documentary which is worth watching. If not for the historical relevance of the political campaign, then for the beautiful shots that capture the feral nature and relaxed lifestyle of Aspen and its surroundings. America the Wild. America the Beautiful. America the Free.

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