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

How the hell does a movie about Hunter S. Thompson wind up being perfunctory? Probably by refusing to allow that, even in spite of his real talent and tenacity, Thompson is to journalism now pretty much what Charles Bukowski is to poetry: a magnet for reverential, ill-advised imitation, a phase to be grown out of. But of course, as the man himself once wrote (of the Hell’s Angels), “In a nation of frightened dullards, there’s always a sorry shortage of outlaws. And those few who make the grade are always welcome.”

In Gonzo: The Life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, writer-producer-director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark SideEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) gamely reconstructs Thompson’s cult of personality, as if that particular edifice, built mostly by the good doctor himself the first time around, had since fallen apart. Really, though, the cult still is in fine condition (that doctorate, by the way, was for real but also a joke, as it came from a mail-order divinity school); it’s the career itself that crumbled.

Gibney gets to that, eventually. First he nimbly marshals some compelling archival footage of the era–America’s unruly 1960s and ’70s–in which Thompson came to prominence, plus a diverse parade of witnesses: from Pat Buchanan, who once had the professional obligation to parry the writer’s ferociously eloquent contempt for Richard Nixon, to Ralph Steadman, whose ink-splotched illustrations for Thompson’s tales helped encode their style. “I think the birth of gonzo happened when the evil came out of me in the drawings,” Steadman here recalls.

Gonzo does at least catch a glint from the double-edged sword of Thompson’s stance toward political reporting: “The last thing that I cared about was establishing long-term connections on capitol hill,” he once said, discovering an attitude that proved both a blessing and a curse. Hyperbolic subjectivity was Thompson’s great contribution to his field, and also his undoing. 

There are, of course, the obligatory and somewhat cheesy subjective simulations of Thompson’s famous druggy excess. And the touchstone episodes of his life, like the inevitable divorce; the “Freak Power” party run for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado; the fruitful involvement with George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972; and the long road downhill, from blowing an assignment to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974, to Thompson’s (foretold) suicide in 2005.

Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter is listed as a producer; accordingly, the movie is full of itself and fun but nonessential. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in director Terry Gilliam’s film version of his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is on hand to read the maestro’s writings. It’s a good and practiced impersonation, but inherently venerating, maybe a little too smooth, and–especially in a movie that also (too) occasionally lets the venerated figure speak for himself–accidentally distancing as well.

In other words, all Gibney’s film really does to define the term “gonzo” is reiterate that it has become a cliché. If one comes away from Gonzo feeling inspired to re-read Thompson’s books, it’s mostly to shake off the movie’s excesses–in order to properly remember and appreciate the author’s own.

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