Reviewer: Bill Gibron
Rare is the individual who can leave a mark on his chosen profession.
In the case of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, there's an entire school of
journalistic thought named after him. Architect of the now infamous
of reporting (taken from a random critical comment offered by a
friend), the man who followed the Hell's Angels for a year, struggled
to see the America Dream in seedy Las Vegas, and hit the campaign
trail in '72 to discover more "fear and loathing," remains an icon to
an entire generation. Disaffected and constantly cantankerous, there
was nothing predictable about the artist also known as Raoul Duke.
Even his abrupt death by a self inflicted gunshot wound in 2005
seemed shockingly apropos.
Along with the more personal documentary Breakfast with Hunter,
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson stands as a
seminal work of talking head biography. It tracks down many of the
important people in the Kentucky-born bad boy's life, and lets them
wax poetic and profound for almost two hours. Within the
reminiscences we learn of his initial love of writing, his time as
part of the notorious outlaw motorcycle gang, his experiences with
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a run for sheriff of Aspen,
Colorado, his eyewitness account of the 1968 Democratic Convention in
Chicago, and his various run-ins and affiliations with members of
both the counterculture and Establishment.
As a narrative, writer/director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side,
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) spends a great deal of time
highlighting Thompson's triumphs in the '60s and '70s. We are walked
through the beginnings of his career, see the response to his exposé
on the Angels, learn the reason for his residency at Rolling Stone,
and witness the rock star like lifestyle he led during the time. Many
of the comments recall a man capable of holding his liquor and then
some, of consuming copious amounts of differing drugs and yet never
really giving in to their brain-dulling devices. As such noted
collaborators as illustrator Ralph Steadman and reporter Tim Crouse
explain, a steady state of intoxication seemed to fuel his literary fire.
As narrator Johnny Depp reverentially reads some of the wild man's
work, we hear first hand accounts of his atomic temper, his lax
parenting, his rampant womanizing, and the late '70s downfall that
led to a later life filled with unfulfilled dreams and a decided dip
in quality. A key theme Gibney continuously focuses on is Thompson's
self-destructive nature. He constantly undermined his actions,
usually in a snit about something minor or beyond his ability to
tolerate. We are there when he blows up at Alex Cox over the decision
to "animate" the "Wave Speech" from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(it's one of the reasons he was fired, and Terry Gilliam took over),
and experience the upheaval when first wife Sandy discovers audio
tapes of his infidelities.
If there is anything missing from the sensational personal overview,
it's a smattering of critical context. Even when McGovern Campaign
Manager Gary Hart tries to denounce a certain aspect of Thompson's
personality, he proffers a sincere apology. Indeed, the idol worship
that drove Thompson into exile during the '80s is evident in every
onscreen comment, pro or con. For those who already know a great deal
about the quintessential rebel, a few more details would have been
nice. As with most myths, however, clarity is never necessary -- and
in the case of this mysterious media figure, the lack of information
only adds to his allure. And for a man who lived on legend for most
of his life that seems suitable.