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

Magnolia Pictures
Alex Gibney/United States 2008

“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writer Hunter S. Thompson is referring to his friend and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. But of course, the quote is most fitting to Thompson himself. The documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson chronicles the life of the very weird, very unique, very brilliant writer, from his early days as a journalist following the Hell’s Angels to his eventual suicide in 2005.

Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s film stands out from the herd with the sheer amount of personal footage and interviews he has amassed. While never tedious, there seem to be interviews from nearly everyone who was impacted by Thompson’s writing – including members of the Hell’s Angels, former president Jimmy Carter, Thompson’s ex-wife and son, musician Jimmy Buffett, presidential candidate George McGovern, and Thompson’s faithful illustrator and friend Ralph Steadman. The interviews are fascinating, yet never romanticize Thompson. Interviewees refer to his attitude as “infantile” and former Hell’s Angels members clearly hold a grudge for the way they were portrayed in his instantly best-selling book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Among his myriad contradictions were his leftist politics and massive gun collection, and many friends and acquaintances comment on his violent streak and explosive nature.

Beyond Thompson’s personal nature and larger-than-life persona, a hefty portion of the documentary focuses on his involvement in politics, ranging from his own campaign for Sheriff in Colorado in 1970 to his coverage of the Nixon-McGovern presidential race, and the eventual lessening of his relevance in politics and journalism. Although Thompson’s writing is known for its absurdity and humor, the film emphasizes his very real commitment to justice and civil rights, even as he continued to be disappointed by the promises of politicians. Gonzo neatly ties in the ideas expressed so brilliantly by Thompson in his day with the fear and loathing Americans experience today under the Bush administration. As Thompson himself said, “Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for. But if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.”

Although Gonzo is generally well-crafted as a whole, it falters when it attempts to emulate Thompson’s wildness via hallucinatory special effects and off-beat formalistic techniques. While I usually am a fan of “form fits function,” there is something a little weak about the various filters and graphic effects meant to represent Thompson’s psychedelic reality. Thompson’s ex-wife Sandy is interviewed against a backdrop of shifting photographs of their past together, a tactic that’s more distracting than inspiring. A visual interpretation of Thompson’s psyche should be left to Terry Gilliam, and thankfully many scenes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are featured in Gonzo. Not only does it prevent the filmmakers from overusing their Apple Photobooth special effects, it gives the viewer a new appreciation for Johnny Depp’s acting, which – when compared to the actual footage of Thompson – is pretty phenomenal.

Gibney also uses a very heavy hand when it comes to the music. Not only does the soundtrack rely on the typical, cliched 1960’s songs, but the music is used in a literal manner almost to an embarrassing degree. Focusing on the heavy drug use by Thompson and his contemporaries, the accompanying song is “One Toke Over The Line,” and footage of his funeral ceremony is set alongside the song “Spirit In The Sky” – and those are just the examples I remember. The film loses some artfulness in this.

Despite the nostalgic songs and smattering of celebrity interviews, if you’re not interested in the subject matter, Gonzo will most likely drag. However, if you’ve read Thompson or are interested in the political/drug culture of yesteryear, the film has quite a bit to offer. The terrific supply of photographs, personal footage, and interviews shed new light on Thompson, and more importantly, on the cultural and political zeitgeist of the 1960s and ’70s.

© 2008 Maggie Glass. All rights reserved.

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  1. Some Reviews Of Alex Gibney’s Gonzo « Hstbook’s Weblog By Martin Flynn.

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