July 12, 2008
by Jessica Mosby
Every Sunday afternoon my college journalism advisor, who everyone
lovingly called "Coach," would meet with the newspaper staff and
critique the past week's articles. As a portly middle-aged man who
had won numerous awards for his work at a major newspaper, Coach
would often encourage us to cover our stories with a "Gonzo"
approach. The concept of participatory journalism seemed feasible,
but drinking a bottle of bourbon while driving around Las Vegas in a
Cadillac convertible with a trunk full of drugs didn't really seem
conducive to writing articles about our school's basketball team.
For the late Hunter S. Thompson, ground-breaking journalism did
include copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, and reckless behavior; his
works, and personal tactics, have become the stuff of legends. Making
an interesting film about Thompson doesn't seem that difficult,
especially considering how ripe his history is with unbelievable
stories and ridiculous adventures – much of which has been documented
in his most famous works.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – the new
documentary biopic currently playing at theatres – is an inspiring
look at Thompson's life, but the chronological film begins to falter
when depicting Thompson's own professional and personal decline in
The film begins with the obligatory chronicling of Thompson's rise to
fame as a journalist. While he initially considered himself a
photojournalist, in 1965 Thompson received a career-making assignment
from The Nation magazine: he was to infiltrate and report on the
notorious California-based motorcycle gang, the Hell's Angels. The
resulting article and book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible
Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, made Thompson famous.
One of the documentary's strengths is actor Johnny Depp's narration.
While reading a passage from Hell's Angels that describes Thompson's
late night ride from San Francisco to Monterey along the Pacific
Coast Highway, Depp's voice truly brings life to Thompson's work. It
doesn't hurt that Depp, who also starred as Thompson in the feature
film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, looks quite sultry
sitting alone in a deserted bar while reading aloud.
For viewers not familiar with Thompson or his work, the film brings
to light the originality of Thompson's method, which was later termed
"Gonzo" journalism. In the 1960s journalists didn't live among their
subjects or write their articles in a subjective first-person
narrative. Thompson and his unique approach to reporting helped
create a new genre of participatory journalism, encouraging the
writer to become so involved in the action as to become a central
figure in the story.
San Francisco in the 1960s was the epitome of optimism for Thompson.
He loved the entire scene: the drugs, the music, the people, and the
political activism that focused on ending the Vietnam War and
furthering the Civil Rights movement. For Thompson, that era
personified the American Dream, and he saw a national change coming
with President John F. Kennedy and later Robert Kennedy. Describing
that decade in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Thompson wrote, "We had
all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave."
But writer/director/producer Alex Gibney reduces a pivotal time in
his subject's life to clichéd shots of Haight Ashbury while the
decade's greatest hits play in the background. For Thompson, the
values of the 1960s were not a cliché, and the film should have
depicted this in a way more fitting to Thompson's experiences.
Gibney is obviously in awe of Thompson; the film furthers his status
as a mythic literary with telling details about his early life:
Thompson purportedly learned to write by typing and retyping The
Great Gatsby. Though an interesting bit of trivia, what is more
rousing about Thompson's career is that it was truly informed and
shaped by the events he covered from 1968 to 1972: the 1968
Democratic Convention; his own run for Sherriff of Aspen, Colorado;
the mayhem that is described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and
his coverage of the 1972 presidential election for Rolling Stone
magazine. The most engaging part of the documentary covers the height
of Thompson's career.
Thompson's personal and professional demise is inextricably linked to
what he saw as the "death of the American Dream" in the 1970s, namely
the loss of the ideals and optimism that characterized the 1960s. The
beatings of protestors outside the 1968 Democratic Party's convention
by the Chicago police profoundly affected Thompson; in his coverage
of the event he wrote, "The American Dream was clubbing itself to
death." After Senator George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential
election, Thompson finally lost faith in the American Dream he so
deeply valued. His career never really recovered. After years of
discussing suicide and expanding his gun collection, Thompson ended
his own life in 2005 at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.
Sadly, the behavior that made him a celebrity and fueled his career –
too much drinking and drug use – ultimately contributed to his
downfall. Unfortunately for Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the
Campaign Trail '72, made his antics as famous as his work. Having
always relied on his anonymity for investigative reporting, he became
too well known to hide in a crowd and his work began to suffer. As
writer Tom Wolfe says in the film, "Hunter must have felt trapped,
trapped in Gonzo."
After the 119 minute documentary ended I realized that, to the
detriment of the film, Academy Award winner Gibney is Thompson's
number one fan, and as a result the film doesn't take a critical
enough look at its subject. While he was obviously a very talented
person, there existed a dark and often destructive side to Thompson.
The only person to say anything negative is Thompson's first wife
Sondi Wright, who left him after his substance abuse and infidelity
became too much to ignore.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is not a brilliant
documentary, it's more a fan letter; there are too many interviews
with celebrities, editors, friends, and family members who all say
the same thing – that Thompson was a funny and clever guy who lived
on the edge. (I do, however, love the anecdote about his failed run
for Sherriff of Aspen in 1970, when Thompson shaved his now-famous
head just so he could say, "unlike my long-haired opponent" while
campaigning.) The film could have benefited from a little further
editing, namely the unnecessary scenes of Depp portraying Thompson in
the feature film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Despite the film's shortcomings, I was moved by Thompson and his
work, especially when he was at the peak of his career. Aside from
the crazy exploits that made him famous, Thompson was a very talented
person who believed fully in the American Dream and who felt
tremendously let down by the course of the country. Many people
probably leave Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
wanting to emulate his famous debauchery, but I left the theatre
feeling inspired by the American Dream that Thompson once believed in
with boundless optimism.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San
Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling
across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public
radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk
stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.