'Gonzo': Hunter Thompson's Savage Journey
The good doctor gets the great bio-doc he deserves.
By Kurt Loder
Jul 3 2008
The late Hunter S. Thompson was a dazzling writer who in his days of
greatness from the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s, approximately
misled a lot of younger writers into believing that if they just
ingested enough drugs and alcohol, they, too, could write like Hunter
S. Thompson. It didn't work that way. In the end, it didn't even work
that way for Hunter anymore.
In "Gonzo," Alex Gibney's moving new documentary about Thompson, we
meet the man foursquare: not just the brilliant, rampaging star of
the "new journalism" of that period, but also the irascible crank,
the drunken gun nut, the public menace. Hunter was much-loved by his
many admiring cronies, among them Bill Murray, Keith Richards and
Johnny Depp (who narrates the film). "On the other hand," says his
ex-wife Sandy, "he was absolutely vicious." Such balanced candor is
rare in any documentary, and it makes "Gonzo" the most transfixing
film about a troubled artist since the 1994 "Crumb."
Thompson was always involved in some sort of uproar. Even back home
in Louisville, Kentucky, he couldn't make it to his high school
graduation because he was in jail. The movie, using a rich mix of
rare footage, photos, audiotapes and talking heads, chronicles his
beginning as a young sports writer, inspired by Hemingway and
Fitzgerald, and shows us his arrival in San Francisco in 1965, at the
height of the hippie/protest moment. There, Hunter dropped acid,
bought a Walther P38 (an early efflorescence of what he frankly
called "my gun problem") and spent a year hanging out with the Hells
Angels, about whom he subsequently wrote a terrific, relatively
straightforward book ("Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga").
Hunter had mixed feelings about the Angels. On one hand, as he said,
"In a nation of frightened dullards, there's always a shortage of
outlaws." On the other hand, a gang of Angels beat him nearly to a
pulp after the book's publication. (Thompson had been present at a
notorious Angels sex orgy during an all-night party thrown by
novelist and LSD evangelist Ken Kesey, and he loaned his audiotape of
the incident to Tom Wolfe to use in writing his 1968 psychedelic
narrative, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." In "Gonzo," Wolfe
offers the movie's highest praise of Thompson's talent: "He reminds
me so much of Mark Twain.")
Soon came the glory years. Hunter's strange and wonderful run for
mayor of Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket (platform: "No
drug worth taking should be sold for money") drew the attention of
Rolling Stone, which would soon become his primary outlet. His
teaming with the mad British artist Ralph Steadman to cover the 1970
Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's Monthly resulted in the first flowering
of his intensely debauched "gonzo" style, which blossomed fully in
the explosive "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." This "savage journey
to the heart of the American Dream," which ran in two installments in
Rolling Stone in November of 1971, had a seismic cultural effect.
What might have been a straight journalistic account of an
unexceptional event a national law-enforcement drug conference at
the desert gambling mecca became in Hunter's words a hallucinatory
brew of calumny, malediction and feverish vituperation, with frequent
interjections of authorial drug inventories. So powerful was the
spell of Thompson's style that a first exposure to "Fear and
Loathing" could actually change, at least for a while, the way one
perceived the world (and its sudden infestation of giant lizards and
Hunter next applied his gonzo technique to the 1972 presidential
race, starting with the Democratic primaries, which came down to a
contest between two senators, Edmund Muskie and George McGovern.
Thompson, a fairly standard-issue progressive Democrat, was partial
to the left-wingish McGovern, and libeled Muskie with wild abandon.
(He claimed the hapless senator was addicted to an obscure
psychoactive drug called ibogaine a charge that was swallowed whole
by some reporters, and credulously regurgitated in their various
publications.) McGovern won the nomination but was crushed in the
national election by the sitting president, Richard Nixon. Hunter,
who hated Nixon, described him as a man who "speaks to the werewolf
in us on nights when the moon comes too close."
Thompson's Rolling Stone reports "the most accurate and least
factual account of the campaign," according to McGovern's campaign
manager were published as a book the following year ("Fear and
Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72"). Many other tomes followed
memoirs, letters, reclaimed juvenilia, compilations of old magazine
pieces. None of them came close to matching the impact of his first
three books. By now, Hunter was famous, and wherever he went on
assignment, he became the story. Slowly, the work and the will to
do it dried up, and by the turn of the millennium, he had become
something of a hermit, secluded at Owl Creek Farm, his "fortified
compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado. There he was visited by celebrity
friends, who found him tending his peacocks, drinking a bottle of
whiskey a day, slamming drugs as if it were still the '70s and firing
off his guns whenever the mood struck. (He kept 22 firearms in the
house, all loaded at all times.)
By 2005, Hunter's health had deteriorated; he was 67 years old and
had long since grown weary of the world. He had talked for years
about checking out as soon as life lost its zest, and now he was
ready. On the afternoon of February 20, his son Juan found him
slumped at the typewriter he still used, dead from a bullet in the
head. Many months later, a memorial service was held in the back
field of Hunter's property. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes
were fired out of a cannon atop a 157-foot-tall "Freak Power" tower.
Among the famous friends on hand were Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn,
Charlie Rose and Johnny Depp, who had played Hunter in the
misbegotten film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and who
paid for this farewell ceremony.
Hunter died in some disillusionment. Long ago, he'd thought the
cultural upheavals of the 1960s would produce a better, more just
world. Instead, they evolved into a sex-and-drugs wallow of, as even
the hedonistic Hunter saw it, little real social utility. He was
haunted by what might have been. Looking back, he said, "You can
almost see the high-water mark that place where the wave finally
broke, and rolled back."
A tribute to 'The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson'
By David Carr
Published: June 25, 2008
Hunter S. Thompson, who has been lionized in two feature films,
served as the model for a running character in "Doonesbury" and is
the subject of enough doctoral dissertations to build a bonfire, now
has a documentary devoted to him, "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr.
Hunter S. Thompson," by Alex Gibney. Thompson, who always seemed to
keep one drug-crazed eye on posterity behind his ever-present shades,
would surely be pleased but not surprised.
But how to freshly document the life of a man who was his own
Boswell, whose books and articles slavishly documented his own every
tic, whoop and hallucination? A journalist who announced his arrival
in American letters by riding with the Hells Angels and in the end
choreographed a memorial from the grave that made the Burning Man
bacchanal seem chaste? Few writers have commodified narcissism so
completely - his participatory style of journalism became its own
genre and gives the film its title - but still we are invited to sit
in the theater and have a flashback about his flashbacks.
When the film opens in the United States on July 4, why will people,
as Thompson would say, buy the ticket, take the ride? The documentary
by Gibney, who also made "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and
"Taxi to the Dark Side," does not attempt to work around Thompson's
endless self-consciousness but uses it as leverage instead. Produced
by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, and narrated by the
actor Johnny Depp, "Gonzo" mirrors the subjectivity and immersion of
the journalism Thompson and his trusty arsenal of psychoactive agents
perpetrated in Rolling Stone and elsewhere. Gibney eschews narrative
conventions and switches points of view on a dime, creating a prism
of interviews and episodes that gradually assembles into a compelling portrait.
In his long-running fever dream about America and its abundant
pathologies, the bald man, with the tumbler of whiskey and head full
of Schedule 1 narcotics, captured not only a mood - your government
is not your friend - but many realities of civic life, most notably
that if candidates were willing to do what it takes to get elected,
they would probably arrive in office corrupted beyond hope.
Thompson was not just an original, he was also a patriot and a
romantic. Working from the far reaches of the culture and often
lucidity, Thompson, who died in 2005 at 67, changed the way that much
of America thought about itself, in part because his version of
journalism threw a grenade at the bland convention of formal balance
and straight reporting.
"I would argue that Hunter and Tom Wolfe are the two most original
voices to come out of journalism in the last century, and it's no
coincidence that they both worked for Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone,"
Carter said. "No one else was willing to push it that way, to take
those risks." Gibney's documentary plays appropriate tribute by
restricting its gaze to the nascent Thompson of the '60s and early
'70s. By the time most of America knew who Thompson was, he was
pretty much washed up, having gradually been overtaken by his own
legend, with steady assists from the bottle, the drugs and his coven
August men line up to pay their respects in the documentary - Patrick
J. Buchanan, George McGovern, Jimmy Buffett, Gary Hart and Timothy
Crouse, the author of the campaign memoir "The Boys on the Bus" - as
do the women he loved. Both his first wife, Sandy, and second wife,
Anita, testify to his courage and courtliness, in between pointing
out that he could be mean as a snake and far less predictable. He
broke through by covering a biker gang from the inside - he "rode
with the Angels," as Wolfe puts it in the film - and took a serious
beat-down on the way out. Journalism, as practiced by Thompson, was
not something for sissies.
It's clear in the documentary that what became a sort of pillar of
the so-called New Journalism - nonfiction writing that borrowed from
the techniques of fiction writing - began at the Kentucky Derby, when
Thompson ignored the race he was there to cover. "We had come to see
the real beasts perform," those in the stands, Depp says, reading an
article over Ralph Steadman's illustrations.
In 1971 Thompson went looking for the American dream while on
assignment, and rather presciently he did what many tourists do
today: He went to Las Vegas. "Gonzo" borrows a lot of footage from
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the 1998 film that stars Depp as
Raoul Duke, the nom de persona of Thompson in the book of the same name.
Depp developed a lasting affiliation with his subject, and narrates
much of Gibney's documentary - in one instance while holding a
six-shooter at the ready - with a bit of the rumble that made
Thompson's speaking voice distinctive as well. (The film also uses
some scenes from "Where the Buffalo Roam," the biopic starring Bill
Murray.) Stylistically the documentary combs the extensive archive of
tapes, both audio and video, some made by Thompson familiars who
spent time with him in his bunker at Woody Creek, Colorado. The rest
of the film uses standard talking heads and narration drawn mostly
from Thompson's two most celebrated books, "Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72."
"I wanted to have some fun in the film, because nobody really
appreciated me trying to put laughs in 'Taxi,"' Gibney said over
breakfast this month at the Peninsula Hotel in New York. "It was too
dark." Gibney said he thought of "Gonzo" as a bit of comic relief
from "Taxi," this year's Oscar-winning documentary, which tells the
story of an Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death by American
soldiers while in extrajudicial detention at Bagram Air Base. But
Gibney and Thompson are both known for driving big dump trucks of
truth toward power.
"As a journalist Hunter never seemed to get trapped or hoodwinked
into the phony balance," said Gibney, who agreed to the documentary
after being approached by Carter, even though Gibney never met
Thompson. As read by Depp in the film, Thompson suggests that
objectivity was for suckers, a way to allow evil to triumph: "It was
the built-in blind spots of the objective rule and dogma that allowed
Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place." Sometimes
that subjectivity could slip into something less benign. In 1972,
when he took it upon himself to attempt to drive the presidential
candidate Edmund Muskie slowly insane, he suggested that Muskie was
hooked on ibogaine, an obscure Brazilian drug. Thompson had made it
up and seemed surprised when others took the bait. Frank Mankiewicz,
the political director of the McGovern presidential campaign, is seen
in the film saying that Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" book about the
1972 race, a collection of his articles for Rolling Stone, was "the
least accurate and most truthful" account of the campaign.
That campaign proved to be the high-water mark of his career.
Although Gibney is quick to say that Thompson wrote as he did in
spite of the drugs and alcohol, the substances didn't just beckon the
muse, they were stamped into everything that eventually popped out.
Always far past deadline, of course. "Hunter could manufacture a
crisis out of almost anything," said Wenner, his friend and longtime
editor at Rolling Stone. There are extensive segments with Steadman,
the long-suffering British illustrator and accomplice who could
chronicle the internal and external demons Thompson spied everywhere.
The poles of love and hate that characterize many great
collaborations are clearly visible in the film.
As the documentary demonstrates, the bottom for the pair came when
Thompson was assigned to cover the Rumble in the Jungle, the fight
between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Steadman
explains in the film that in an act of enormous cocaine-assisted
hubris (or perhaps fear that Ali, one of his heroes, was about to
take a huge beating), Thompson gave away his tickets to the fight and
went for a swim. In doing so, he missed one of the greatest upsets in
boxing history and, more important for a journalist, did not get the story.
By the accounts of many Thompson never recovered from that episode,
gradually morphing into the character of Uncle Duke that Garry
Trudeau introduced in "Doonesbury," a cartoon figure who fired
automatic weapons from his sun deck at apparitions and enemies that
only he could see. He became the sum of his trademarks - the
sunglasses, cigarette holder and inchoate rage - and ended up
imprisoned by them.
"He was the master persona maker," said Douglas Brinkley, the
historian and friend of Thompson's who serves as executor of the
estate. "If Ernest Hemingway was going to go big-game hunting in
Africa, Hunter wanted to use a submachine gun to hunt wild boar in
Big Sur, California. He was dangerous, like handling nitroglycerin,
and he liked to keep it that way."
In the end everyone wanted to be around Thompson except Thompson. And
on a bright winter day in Woody Creek, with his son in the house -
Juan Thompson sardonically terms it a "warm family moment" in the
film - he called his own bluff and blew his brains out.
He was infirm at the time, spending time in a wheelchair. Given his
fundamental allergy to institutions like hospitals, his decision to
set the terms of his exit is unsurprising.
"I'm really in the way as a person," he said. "The myth has taken
over. I find myself an appendage. I'm no longer necessary. I'm in the
way. It would be much better if I died. Then people could take the
myth and make films."
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
July 3, 2008
by Roger Ebert
In all the memories gathered together in "Gonzo: The Life and Work of
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," there was one subject I found conspicuously
missing: The fact of the man's misery. Did he never have a hangover?
The film finds extraordinary access to the people in his life, but
not even from his two wives do we get a description I would dearly
love to read, on what he was like in the first hour or two after he
woke up. He was clearly, deeply, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and
after a stupor-induced sleep he would have awakened in a state of
withdrawal. He must have administered therapeutic dozes of booze or
pills or something to quiet the tremors and the dread. What did he
say at those times? How did he behave? Are the words "fear and
Of course, perhaps Thompson was immune. One of the eyewitnesses to
his life says in wonderment, "You saw the stuff go in and there was
no discernible effect." I don't think I believe that. If there was no
discernible effect, how would you describe his behavior? If he had
been sober all his life, would he have hunted wild pigs with a
machine gun? Thompson was the most famous (or notorious) inebriate of
his generation, but perhaps he really was one of those rare creatures
who had no hangovers, despite the debaucheries of the day(s) before.
How much did he consume? A daily bottle of bourbon, plus wine, beer,
pills of every description.
The bottom line is, he got away with it, right up until his suicide,
which he himself scripted and every one of his friends fully
expected. As a journalist he got away with murder. He reported that
during a presidential primary Edward Muskie ingested Ibogaine, a
psychoactive drug administered by a "mysterious Brazilian doctor,"
and this information, which was totally fabricated, was actually
picked up and passed along as fact. Thompson's joke may have
contributed to Muskie's angry tantrums during the 1972 Florida
primary. No other reporter could have printed such a lie, but
Thompson was shielded by his legend: He could print anything. "Of all
the correspondents," says Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's 1972 campaign
manager, "he was the least factual, but the most accurate."
He was an explosive, almost hypnotic, writer, with a savage glee in
his prose. I remember eagerly opening a new issue of Rolling Stone in
the 1970s and devouring his work. A great deal of it was untrue, but
it dealt in a kind of exalted super-truth, as when he spoke of
Richard Nixon the vampire roaming the night in Washington. Thompson
had never heard of objectivity. In 1972 he backed George McGovern as
the Democratic nominee, and no calumny was too vile for him to
attribute to McGovern's opponents in both parties. I suppose readers
were supposed to know that and factor it into the equation.
This documentary by Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side," "No End in
Sight") is remarkable, first of all, for reminding us how many pots
Hunter dipped a spoon in. He rode with the Hells' Angels for a year.
Ran for sheriff of Pitkin County and lost, but only by 204-173.
Covered the 1972 and 1976 presidential primaries in a way that made
him a co-candidate (in the sense of co-dependent). Had a baffling
dual personality, so that such as McGovern, Jimmy Buffet, Tom Wolfe
and his wives and son remember him fondly, but could also be
He taught himself to write by typing Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
again and again, we're told. How many times? we ask ourselves
skeptically. Was that part of the fantastical legend? Nobody in the
film was around while he was doing it. He became famous for writing
about "the Edge" in his Hells' Angels' book--that edge of speed going
around a curve which you could approach, but never cross without
wiping out and killing yourself. He did a lot of edge-riding on his
motorcycle, and never wiped out. He said again and again that the way
he chose to die was by his own hand, with a firearm, while he was
still at the top. He died that way, using one of his 22 firearms, but
"he was nowhere near the top," says Sondi Wright, his first wife.
He started to lose it after Africa, says Jann Wenner, who ran his
stuff in Rolling Stone. He went to Zaire at great expense to cover
the Rumble in the Jungle for the magazine, got hopelessly stoned,
missed the fight (while reportedly in the hotel pool), and never
filed a story. "After Africa," says Sondi, "he just couldn't write.
He couldn't piece it together." He did some more writing, of course,
such as a heartfelt piece after 9/11. But he had essentially
disappeared into his legend, as the outlaw of Woody Creek, blasting
away with his weapons, making outraged phone calls, getting
impossibly high. Certainly he made an impression on his time like few
other journalists ever do; the comparison would be with H. L. Mencken.
This film gathers interviews from a wide and sometimes surprising
variety of people (Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Hells' Angel Sonny
Barger). It has home movies, old photos, TV footage, voice
recordings, excerpts from file about Thompson). It is narrated by
Johnny Depp, mostly through readings from Thompson's work. It is all
you could wish for in a doc about the man. But it leaves you
wondering, how was it that so many people liked this man who does not
seem to have liked himself? And what about the hangovers?
Trip to the dark and bright sides of an icon
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 4, 2008
The title of Alex Gibney's latest documentary, "Gonzo: The Life and
Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," neatly sums up its subject. It's an
overview of Thompson's pioneering journalism and changing states of
mind, serviceably presented as a fond, somewhat nostalgic glance in
the rearview mirror of recent American history, clumsily connecting
the travesties of the Nixon era to the travesties of the current one.
Thompson - his brilliance, his self-destruction, and the ground he
broke - is always at the center, but the film occasionally loses its focus.
As you might expect for a movie produced by the Vanity Fair editor
and general éminence grise Graydon Carter, "Gonzo" is an all-access
affair. Not only has Gibney rounded up tons of footage of Thompson
(there's some choice stuff, for example, from an appearance on TV's
"To Tell the Truth"), he has gained access to an impressive gallery
of Thompson insiders: Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan, George
McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jann Wenner, Thompson's ex-wife Sondi Wright,
his widow, Anita, and his son, Juan. They, and Johnny Depp's
narration (intoning from Thompson's writings, at one point clutching
a six-shooter while he reads), are all put to illustrative use,
helping separate the complex explorer they knew from the weirdo
persona he eventually cultivated.
The movie is also after bigger things. It wants to present Thompson
as a visionary and an oracle. "Gonzo" opens with a reenactment of
Thompson banging out one of his columns for ESPN.com. This particular
one, written hours after Sept. 11, was full of unhappy predictions of
conflicts to come. Gibney and his editor, Alison Ellwood, use the
piece to build a montage demonstrating that his predictions have come true.
The past is the movie's strong suit. Thompson rode the wave of '60s
indulgence (drugs and rock 'n' roll during the height of San
Francisco's Haight-Ashbury period) that crashed in 1970s
disillusionment. His violent, name-making time with the Hell's Angels
in the mid-1960s eventually leads to his classic at-large work for
Rolling Stone, where he chronicled a kind of American nightmare. A
raw truth emerged from the reporting he did from the melees of the
1968 Democratic convention through the 1972 presidential election to
his discovery of Jimmy Carter in 1974. And Gibney's movie delves into
the entertaining paradoxes of Thompson's groundbreaking style. He
merged reportage and a kind of louche fabulism to the point where his
pieces resembled a funhouse-mirror version of reality: The truth was
warped, but you could still make it out. To that end, his field
adventures met their psychic X-ray and visual soul mate in Ralph
Steadman's psychotic illustrations.
In capturing the social and moral cauldron the country had become,
Thompson became a kind of disgusted activist, forgoing the
journalist's credo of objectivity to show his readers what he thought
was really going on. He embraced George McGovern during the '72
Democratic presidential primaries (he was covering the campaign) and
enthusiastically trashed '68 nominee Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie,
two of McGovern's rivals for the nomination in '72.
Somehow "Gonzo" never makes any great headway into Thompson's psyche.
It may not be possible, the essence of who he was having been altered
by decades of drugs and alcohol. The movie is always fascinating when
it deepens into an examination of the era in which Thompson was
working and how his attitude toward his profession really affected
politics. Gary Hart, who was McGovern's campaign manager, discusses
how Thompson's embellishments and dramatizations trivialized the
tough work of running a campaign. And someone else mentions, in a
similar vein, how Thompson's unorthodox - OK, unprofessional -
comportment on the trail rankled the serious journalists in the press
pool. Listening to them, I was struck by the fact that people say the
same about bloggers today.
Gibney won an Oscar earlier this year for his superb military-torture
documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side"; and in a move that might have
amused Thompson, he's suing that movie's distributor for doing a bad
job just in time for the release of his new movie. The current wars
are an evident source of moral frustration and creative inspiration
for him. But where Gibney's outrage in "Taxi" had the terrible,
exhilarating chill of a well-told ghost story, events in "Gonzo" are
disorganized in a way that leaves us with only a vague sense of the
trajectory of Thompson's professional decline.
It's worth noting that the film's gravest shortcoming is its
soundtrack. Gibney loads the film with hits from the 1960s and 1970s
in the least imaginative, most hand-holding manner, the way Nora
Ephron often does with standards in her movies. The documentary
doubles as a jukebox of banality. Thompson discusses his funeral
preferences: "Spirit in the Sky." McGovern gets the nomination in
'72: "You Sexy Thing." His soon-to-be-ex running mate, Thomas
Eagleton, admits to having had shock therapy: "Going Out of My Head."
These songs bring Gibney's film closer to "Sleepless in Seattle" than
any film about Hunter S. Thompson ought to be.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
'Gonzo' documents life, dissipation of the writer
Friday, July 4, 2008
It's altogether fitting that a documentary about writer
S. Thompson be released on Independence Day.
The late Mr. Thompson, who died in 2005 of a self-inflicted gunshot
wound that he all but publicly scheduled, personified several strands
of the classic American mythos: He loved guns and road tripping. He
lived in a cabin out West.
In his heyday, he semi-seriously ran for mayor of Aspen, Colo., which
looked a lot more like a frontier town than the Learjet magnet it is today.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" was wrapped at
the same time as filmmaker Alex Gibney's last effort, "Taxi to the
Dark Side," an Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush
administration's controversial techniques for interrogating terrorist
Not coincidentally, "Gonzo" is overly pushy with Nixon-Bush and
Vietnam-Iraq parallels, but if today's antiwar left were more like
Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps it wouldn't be such a drearily sententious lot.
"Gonzo" failed to persuade me that things are as bad today as they
were then, but it didn't have to. The film, rich in archival video
and audio footage, is much more interested in "then" - specifically,
the period of 1965-75, when Mr. Thompson was at his finest.
One of Mr. Thompson's contemporary admirers, Tom Wolfe, once likened
America to a "billion-footed beast." For those 10 years, there were
few more adept stalkers of said beast than the Louisville, Ky.-born
Mr. Thompson, who followed its movements and mutations into such
places as Las Vegas, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and on
the road with biker gang the Hell's Angels.
Along with journalists like Mr. Wolfe and Gay Talese, Mr. Thompson
cracked open the possibilities of narrative nonfiction. "I survived
by making literature out of what might otherwise be seen as
craziness," he told an interviewer in 1997.
Mr. Thompson's "gonzo" style is not to be confused with "new
journalism," the long-form art associated with Mr. Wolfe and the New
York magazine of the recently deceased editor Clay Felker. What set
it apart was Mr. Thompson himself. He blurred the lines of fiction
and nonfiction in his writing as well as his life. His greatest
"character" was himself - a self-styled outlaw with two dozen
firearms and a fax machine. Mr. Thompson was fluent in the dark side
of the American drama because he nursed it in his own psyche.
On this score, "Gonzo" is enthusiastic without being hagiographic.
Its most poignant interview subject is Mr. Thompson's first wife,
Sandy, who is frank about Mr. Thompson's excesses (alcohol, drugs,
guns, womanizing) and, ultimately, his wasted potential as a critical
voice in America.
Mr. Gibney even gives generous, and amusing, airtime to Pat Buchanan,
who served as an aide to President Richard Nixon - the object of Mr.
Thompson's most painstakingly cultivated hatred.
The narration of Johnny Depp (star of a Hollywood treatment of "Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas"), along with some humble computer graphics
imagery re-creations of Mr. Thompson's free-associative
hallucinations, are a welcome counterbalance to the earnest
reminiscences of folks like Gary Hart, who managed Sen. George
McGovern's ill-fated campaign against Mr. Nixon in '72; and former
President Jimmy Carter, mirthless as ever.
Then there's Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone magazine publisher turned
media lord who gave Mr. Thompson his widest forum (not to mention
outrageous expense accounts).
At one point, Mr. Wenner chokes up at the memory of Mr. Thompson,
when he should have wept over the corporatized rag he's made of the
once truly countercultural Rolling Stone.
Hunter S. Thompson's is not the only decline and death limned in "Gonzo."
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" is a documentary
about the late writer.
From "Fear and Loathing" to Us Weekly: It sounds like one of Mr.
Thompson's most disturbing psychotic visions.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson"
(R: Drug and sexual content; profanity; some nudity)
Directed by Alex Gibney. Screen story by Mr. Gibney. Narrated by Johnny Depp.