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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Informative, if Self-Indulgent, Documentary

On February 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, the father of “gonzo” journalism, took his own life at his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was 67. His death brought into sharp relief his despair with American politics (e.g., the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration). As a charismatic, contradictory larger-than-life figure, Thompson has been the subject of numerous documentaries over the years.

The latest, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, directed by Alex Gibney (the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), offers Thompson’s fans access to never-before-seen archival footage, home movies, and audiotapes, as well as interviews with contemporaries, politicians, family, friends, even an actor or two (Johnny Depp reads from Thompson’s writings on/off screen).

Despite the expansive title, Gonzo focuses primarily on Thompson’s most fecund period, roughly the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. Gibney skims over Thompson’s presumably uneventful early life, from his impoverished childhood growing up in Kentucky, to his initial foray into freelance feature and article writing, with the usual stills, archival footage, and relevant talking heads to set the context and tone.

Gonzo really picks up when it jumps ahead to focus on Thompson’s breakthrough work as a journalist, a non-fiction book on the Hell’s Angels, the notorious motorcycle gang that became a bestseller. Thompson spent a year living and traveling with the Hell’s Angels. Thompson eventually parted ways with Hell’s Angels. One story had Thompson and the Hell’s Angels falling out over money; another had them falling out over Thompson’s negative portrayal of them in his book.

After the Hell’s Angels’ book, Thompson moved to San Francisco to study the drug-and-sex-fueled counterculture. He was disappointed by the lack of political engagement he saw in members of the counterculture. Thompson’s success with the Hell’s Angels book also led to a running gig with Rolling Stone. On assignment for the magazine, Thompson covered the 1968 presidential election. An early supporter of Senator Robert Kennedy, Thompson was devastated when Kennedy was assassinated after the winning the June primary in California. Thompson covered the ill-fated Democratic Convention (where he witnessed ongoing clashes between the police and protesters). Disgusted with the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, Thompson found even more to hate in the Republican nominee and future president, Richard M. Nixon.

After running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado on an unorthodox platform that included the legalization of drugs and renaming Aspen “Fat City” (he lost), Thompson went on an alcohol and drug-fueled trip to find the so-called “American Dream". Out of that experience came his seminal work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a surreal, caustic, nihilistic dissection of the American Dream. It became the biggest success of Thompson’s career and the basis for Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation that featured Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke. By the mid-seventies, however, Thompson’s drug- and alcohol binges took their toll on his writing and his relationship with his first wife (they divorced in 1980). As Thompson’s self-indulgence reached new lows, his writing became sporadic and uninspired.

Thompson’s long descent into dissipation and self parody, not to mention an equally long fallow period (i.e., roughly the 1980s and the 1990s) forces Gibney to jump ahead to Thompson’s last decade, Thompson’s writing gigs (he wrote for ESPN from 2000 until his death), his second marriage, his ongoing disappointment with American politics, and eventually, the despair with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and Bush’s reelection to the presidency in 2004. His memorial service, paid by Johnny Depp, drew celebrities from the political and entertainment worlds, including John Kerry, George McGovern, and Bill Murray (who portrayed Thompson in an earlier, ill-received adaptation, Where the Buffalo Roam).

Although Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson has its moments (especially for moviegoers new to Thompson and his work), all of them due to Gibney’s sure grasp of narrative structure, it’s hard to shake the sense that Gibney’s fascination with Thompson, the counter-cultural hero swallowed up by his self-mythologizing, offers nothing new in either how we see or should see Thompson or the times he lived in. It’s also difficult to overcome the sense that Gibney, like many of Thompson’s admirers in the general public and elsewhere, excuses Thompson’s willful, obstinate self-abuse and his abrasive, temperamental personality and egocentric behavior. Like the subject of his often frustrating documentary, Gibney could have used more objective detachment and less, a lot less, self-indulgence.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars