Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Director: Alex Gibney
Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Tom Wolfe, Johnny Depp
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
A documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most original, entertaining writers and personalities in living memory, is going to be a hoot. I mean, if you can’t make an engaging film about this guy, you have no business in show business. So it’s a given that there will be laughs and outrage and interest in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Question is, will it live up to its subject or simply be an interesting clip show?
Overall, the film was entertaining both to someone with a fair knowledge of Thompson’s life and legacy, and someone almost entirely ignorant of same. Following the arc of Thompson’s career, the film starts with his first major work, the book about Oakland’s Hell’s Angels. Interviewed in recent years, one of the Angels’ leaders is still pissed, but he allows that the writing was great: “Doesn’t mean he isn’t a jerk, but he’s a good writer.” The movie lingers heavily through the sixties and early seventies. By the time the Reagan Era dawns, Thompson has all but stopped writing, and has begun the steady descent into isolation and depression that led to his 2005 suicide.
An undercurrent in Thompson’s work was the search for the elusive, ever-harder-to-define “American Dream.” Thompson’s career, his meteoric rise through idealism, fearlessness and a pioneering spirit, as well as the success and excess that was his undoing, chart the death of that dream.
It’s good that the film devotes most of itself to his work and his public career. His first wife, Sandi, is heavily interviewed, and his son very briefly sketches an absentee father, but mostly the film looks at the public Thompson, which is the Thompson who matters to posterity. Neither ignoring nor obsessing over the intimate, personal details (to go all Entertainment Tonig
ht about it), Writer-director Alex Gibney creates a film that will be a fond reminiscence for those who knew Thompson’s work, and an engaging education for those who didn’t. And keep in mind, anyone under 30 wasn’t even alive during the fertile period for which the writer is rightfully revered.
The pacing is not flawless. Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 political campaign, while less casually famous than his signature Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a key point in the writer’s career. However, the documentarians obsess over this year or two of Thompson’s life to the extent that the film loses sight of Thompson and becomes instead about the campaign itself. The film is not too long—it fits an entire much-storied life into two hours—but as it gets stuck in the mud of the early seventies, the long strange trip seems much longer, and less engagingly strange.
It’s a tribute to Thompson’s work that the fimmakers get a really interesting collection of interviews—George McGovern himself, at length, fellow “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Carter, as well as more expected faces like Rolling Stone honcho Jan Wenner and Thompson’s brilliant artistic collaborator, Ralph Steadman. It’s also a sign of very good taste that Johnny Depp, a friend of Thompson in his last years, isn’t given a lot of camera time. Nor are clips from Depp’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas or Bill Murray’s Where the Buffalo Roam used more than sparingly. Depp reads Thompson’s writing in voice-over, in a subtle evocation of the author’s voice, when tapes of Thompson himself aren’t used, but is rarely even seen on camera. This is, to put it wryly, a more sober look at the man.
Which is not to say there aren’t surreal moments worthy of Thompson himself. You know you’re under the bile-green skies of Planet Irony when Gary fuckin’ Hart (that really is his middle name) affectionately calls your professional behavior “infantile. No wonder that poor bastard Thompson drank Wild Turkey and shot at things.
Biography is one of the most interesting and digestible ways to examine history, and Gonzo is a good lens through which to view the sixties and seventies, for beginners—it doesn’t exactly break any new ground on that overly celebreated era. It’s a great introduction to, and remembrance of, one of the most interesting writers of the late 20th century. My own expertise is vastly insufficient to judge whether the emphasis put on Thompson’s political influence (on the ’68 Democratic primary, on McGovern’s ’72 campaign, in igniting Carter’s presidential run) is overstated.
I can’t recommend Gonzo as a great date film—although there is the chance your date will come out craving a bottle of Wild Turkey and a few lines of blow—and for a (limited) summer release, there’s an appalling lack of explosions and violence (though there is sufficient gunfire). It is a good antidote to low- and middle-brow blockbusters, it offers some good laughs, and, that long campaign stretch aside, is engaging as entertainment as well as informative. And it’s a good reminder of … possibilities, I guess. His longtime first wife, Sandi, comments against comparisons of Vietnam and Iraq, “I think this is a time when a together Hunter Thompson could make a difference in this country.” A quote from Thompson about the Hell’s Angels is blatantly applicable to the writer himself: “In a nation of frightened dullards, there is always a sorry shortage of outlaws, and those few who make the grade are always welcome.”