Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is, in a great many ways, the ultimate Hunter S. Thompson documentary. It isn’t perfect, it doesn’t answer every single question, but it does leave us wondering who could possibly offer up a more apt examination. Piloted by documentarian du jour Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), the film is a wild, entertaining, multimedia ride though the as-advertised “life and work” of the infamous, drug-fueled father of gonzo journalism.
Gibney has recruited a who’s who of late-20th-century icons, both expected (Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, artist Ralph Steadman) and unexpected (Jimmy Carter, a surprisingly insightful Pat Buchanan), to help shed light on Thompson’s legacy. Rather than devolve into your typical talking head documentary, however, Gonzo keeps things fast and loose.
We get tons of archival footage of Thompson himself contrasted with fictionalized sequences from Where the Buffalo Roam (with Bill Murray as Thompson) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (with Johnny Depp as Thompson). We get first-person accounts from people like Hell’s Angels founder Sonny Barger, followed by readings from Thompson’s novels by longtime fan Johnny Depp. An early appearance on the TV game show “To Tell the Truth” is weirdly enlightening. An intermittent series of historical “re-creations” feels slightly contrived, but even those are bolstered by Thompson’s fascinating, unexpurgated audio tapes from the time.
What emerges from this trippy audio/visual collage is an unfiltered look at Thompson during several crucial periods in his life (his writing of the Hell’s Angels book, his unsuccessful run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., his coverage of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign for president). We see his towering talent, we witness his glaring flaws. And we get a hint of what he was trying to achieve with his own experiential, highly editorial and occasionally phantasmagorical form of journalism. (McGovern’s campaign manager, Frank Mankiewicz, calls Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail “the most accurate and least factual account” of that political season.)
Dyed-in-the-wool worshippers will probably already be well-versed in what Gonzo has to say. The midnight bike rides in search of “The Edge,” the Herculean drug use, the ex-wives, the gun collection, the well-rehearsed suicide: It’s all here. But even those who’ve read everything from The Rum Diary to Hey Rube will find plenty of treasures—be they reminiscences from Jimmy Buffet or long-lost campaign commercials from that contentious sheriff’s campaign—to pore over.
Those less convinced of Thompson’s brilliance might think Gibney never goes much beyond mythologizing the man’s bad boy behavior. But even close pals admit that Thompson’s later years were unproductive at best and wasted at worst. Gonzo doesn’t shy away from discussing Thompson’s bitter, binge-filled later years, though most involved (Thompson’s ex-wife, his landlord) dismiss it all with an “it was Hunter” shrug. Unsurprisingly, it was Thompson himself who summed it up best in his suicide note: “I’m an idiot, I’m a fool, I know ... but I’ve been a good read, right?”
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