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

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

Director:Alex Gibney
Cast:Pierre Adeli, Angela Berliner, Pat Buchanan, Joe Cairo, Eugenia Care, David Carlo, Jimmy Carter
Release Date:2008

By Lee Gardner | Posted 7/2/2008

Almost any fan of Hunter S. Thompson would have to approach a Thompson bio-doc with some trepidation. Given his well-deserved reputation as a trailblazing journalist and prose stylist and his equally well-deserved renown as an outsized personality/crank, ripped to the tits on a panoply of narcotics and heavily armed, it's easy to imagine a filmmaker seeking the proper balance of stories to tell and getting it wrong. Fortunately, Thompson drew Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side).

The establishing reels of Gonzo look headed toward what might be the expected default mode of entertaining hagiography, with Johnny Depp reading excerpts of Thompson's work in reverent tones, talking heads such as Jann Wenner and Pat Buchanan talking him up, and Gibney animating and manipulating any archival anything that isn't nailed down. But the documentary soon digs deep into Thompson's finest hours: the groundbreaking immersion journalism that resulted in 1966's Hell's Angels; his crazy-like-a-fox 1970 run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo.; his article "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," the debut of the half-reported, half-concocted first-person "gonzo" style and his first collaboration with illustrating alter ego Ralph Steadman; and the madness and melancholy of the epochal `60s elegy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In an especially valuable section, Gibney also traces Thompson's full-court-press coverage of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign against Thompson nemesis Richard Nixon with its mix of unabashed hopes for McGovern, unflinching coverage of the campaign's failures, and deep disappointment when Nixon won in a landslide. In so doing, the director puts the cherry on not only an incisive view of what made Thompson's work new, unique, and possibly still unmatched, but also of the times that fueled both its idealism and its bile.

Gonzo is then likewise unflinching in illustrating how Thompson's growing fame and rock-star shenanigans hobbled his writing and turned his life into a sideshow until he ended it with a bullet to the head in 2005. There are surely Thompson fans who will be disappointed that Gibney spends little time on his subject's early days, which zip by early on, and even more who will long, if only secretly, for more tales of chemical and ballistic excess from his waning years. But while never lacking for pep or dazzle, Gonzo retains a thoughtful poise that its subject rarely managed in life and in so doing makes an excellent case for what should be remembered about Thompson and why.

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