Alex Gibney's Gonzo isn't the adulatory Hunter S. Thompson puff piece
some claim it is
Published September 11, 2008
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Directed by Alex Gibney. Narrated by Johnny Depp. Metro Cinema
(Zeidler Hall, The Citadel), Sept 12, 14-17.
Journalism school profs often tell their hungriest students to never,
ever try to write like Hunter S. Thompson. The style of participatory
or "gonzo" reporting which Thompson massaged and marketed to
world fame, they claim, is a dead end of self-indulgence. Considering
Thompson's 2005 suicide in his Woody Creek home, it's not such a bad
point. How noble or macho is it, after all, to blow your head off on
the phone to your new wife, your lifelong-neglected son in the next
room? Did all that attention, ultimately, do the man any good?
Though some critics have called Gonzo, Alex Gibney's new documentary
about Thompson, a puff piece, I think it takes a real fan's insight
to understand otherwise. Without having read all his books, for
example, you wouldn't know that Thompson never wrote about his
family, and that the frequent interviews with his two wives seen here
would utterly unnerve him. His first wife Sandy's condemnation of his
suicide is especially riveting to true believers as she calls him
nothing more than a coward. It's good reporting, though Thompson's
never-mentioned gay brother remains shrouded in mystery.
Still, we're not looking for dirt, but insight. Like most
biographies, Gibney concentrates on his subject's heyday the
Kentucky writer's last two decades vanish in a matter of minutes.
Most of the film concentrates on the events surrounding his
powerhouse trilogy: Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign
Trail '72, and the weakest journalistic effort of the three, the
eternally-praised Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Using archival
interviews of the writer and genuinely fair modern reminiscing from
bikers, politicians, and his family, Thompson is broken down and
digested as a truly desperate man who was so haunted by F. Scott
Fitzgerald that he typed out The Great Gatsby word-for-word several
times on his own typewriter.
Fittingly, one of the film's best moments is an old interview where
Thompson and one of the bikers who famously "stomped" him confront
each other onscreen, and, again from Sandy, we get insight into the
infamous Merry Pranksters party where bikers gang-banged a young
girl, a crime that disgusted Thompson.
The interviews regarding Campaign Trail, mind you, are the most
intriguing somewhat idealized tributes from everyone from Jimmy
Carter to the far-right Pat Buchanan. Gary Hart, George McGovern's
campaign manager who would later run for president himself, takes
Thompson apart with the most objectivity, pointing out how Thompson
lost his. Conversations like these balance out Johnny Depp's
reverential, mumbling narration and Rolling Stone editor Jann
Wenner's cautious-yet-idolizing takes on Dr. Gonzo. But in a way,
it's only fair and certainly fitting that everyone involved gets to
play the role of participatory journalist, don't you think?
If anything, the film is a little hard on Thompson's later work, not
even mentioning The Great Shark Hunt by name though Tom Wolfe lets
us in on what happened in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, when Ali
beat George Foreman to a pulp as Hunter had a meltdown, missed the
fight and headed for the pool. Here, Wolfe and Thompson's longtime
illustrator Ralph Steadman agree: it was the journalist's greatest fuckup.
And as Anita Thompson, his second wife, points out, the Bush era took
its toll on our hero like it did on so many of us. Though he
immediately predicted war in Iraq as the two towers went down on
9/11, being right didn't make him happy. Magically, though, Anita
secretly filmed him from the balcony one night, smiling and laughing
at his own words. It's the most touching part of the documentary.
Between Polaroids and audiotape of a naked, Nixon-masked girl
Thompson cheated on Sandy with and film of him torturing his caged
bird, never mind hunting with a machine gun, fans are forced to stare
at a creep worse than Steadman's most hellish portrait.
Yet a man's work, even Hunter's, isn't the same as the man himself.
Freak or not, his words endure, and this movie successfully captures
what got them into the typewriter in the first place.