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

R, 120 min, 2008

Director: Alex Gibney
Writers: Alex Gibney (screenplay), Hunter S. Thompson (writings)
Stars: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Joe Cairo

Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a fascinating, absorbing documentary concerning the life and times of America’s most divisive, ecclectic, insightful, unpredictable and lovably roguish journalist.

Hunter S. Thompson was a wild, lovable heap of a madman who became famous for, among other things, riding with the Hell’s Angels and writing a book about it, running in a pretty close race for the County Sheriff’s department of Aspen, Colorado and losing by a decent margin, covering the 1972 and 1976 Presidential campaigns with a combination of incisive commentary and observation and wittily clever fabrication passed along as genuine fact, going to cover the Rumble in the Jungle and missing it to get high and swim in the hotel pool, covering the many faces and tones of the Kentucky Derby without ever quite making it about the race itself, taking a sojourn to the Nevada desert to cover a dirt race only to find himself in a drug-fueled (and induced) haze the entire time, sometimes fearful, sometimes loathing, always difficult.

He had two wives, a grown son, and enough pharmaceuticals to open an illegal drug operation, and yet he was so beloved. He wrote article after article for Rolling Stone and other publications, and book after book which defined a generation, after teaching himself to write by typing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby over and over to get the rhythm and style of Fitzgerald down pat.  Then in 2005, he killed himself with a shotgun, putting an end to a life that was, if nothing else, thoroughly lived. The suicide, apparently, was no surprise to friends and loved ones who knew Hunter and knew the path he was claiming to be on. It was planned and scripted, as was the ritual celebration afterward, complete with a towering statue of his “Gonzo” symbol (a two-thumbed fist holding a peyote chip) which would shoot his ashes out of a cannon over his Colorado property. He was a frustrating but beloved friend to his friends and a painful but cherished thorn in the backside of his enemies. One can only wonder (as, indeed, the people on display here do) if he’d be as effective today as he was back then.

The film was directed, written and produced by Alex Gibney, the young documentarian who exposed the lengths and depths of an economic scandal in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2004) and who studied fastidiously the effects of the torturous American prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Here, he combines stock footage of Hunter at work, Hunter at play, and Hunter in interviews throughout his long life, and interviews with friends, colleagues and innocent bystanders such as both his wives, his son, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern (whom Hunter supported thoroughly in his Presidential campaign), the former president of the Hell’s Angels, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Buffett, and others.

The film was narrated (mostly from Hunter’s writings) by Johnny Depp, who played a version of Hunter in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). There are even brief clips from Bill Murray’s portrayal in the less than stellar Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

Hunter S. Thompson was a drug fiend, a philosopher king, a womanizer, a madman, a journalist and a difficult man to love. In his review, Roger Ebert asks: “How was it that so many people liked this man who does not seem to have liked himself?” The answer may be: in spite of himself.


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