A Review by Elliot Strong
Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp
Written/Directed by: Alex Gibney
Limited release in theaters, DVD release date TBD.
Who was Hunter S. Thompson? His alter-persona of Raoul Duke, the crazed and drugged-up journalist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
fame, is probably the first image that comes to mind for most people. But for Alex Gibney, the Academy Award winning documentary writer/producer/director (Best Documentary 2007, Taxi to the Dark Side), to take on a new project that explores the legacy of Thompson, there must have been a whole lot more to him.
Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson chooses to explore the less salacious parts of Thompson’s personal life and instead focuses on his political and social commentary as a member of the ‘New Journalism’ movement. Of course, the two sectors often crossed over and one cannot explore the life of Thompson without discussing the “drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity” that he described as integral elements of his career and ultimately tragic life. (Hence the film’s R rating; this is not a documentary about ants, buildings, or beavers.)
The film, narrated by his friend Johnny Depp, primarily expounds on the era of the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. It focuses on the drama of the clashes at the Chicago Democratic Convention in ’68 and as Thompson followed the McGovern campaign in ‘72, which developed into the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. By compiling and connecting archival material and new interviews with figures as interesting and disparate as George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, and Tom Wolfe, it makes for a fascinating and sometimes insightful documentary of the repercussions of that epoch.
It only stumbles when a lengthy and specious comparison is made between the re-election of Nixon in 1972 and the current condition of the United States at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever one’s particular political proclivities may be, it could be agreed upon that the election of 1972 and the War on Terror are independent events in history separated by a few presidents of a varying political spectrum.
But Gonzo’s strengths show when it goes to great lengths to demonstrate how, as a commentator and writer, Thompson was ruthless, cynical and often outrageously funny. He rejected the idea of objective journalism and embraced his opinions and inserted himself into the stories he reported on. His hatred for Richard Nixon was likely unparalleled and he was not afraid to expound upon that wrath in his body of writing. And unlike many authors, Thompson became as comfortable vocalizing his sentiments and opinions publicly as he was putting them to paper. The pressure grew to live up to the persona he portrayed in his writings.
The man behind the persona that Thompson came to embody is explored through incredibly personal interviews with friends such as Wolfe, Jimmy Buffett, illustrator Ralph Steadman, and family members such as his son Juan Thompson, first wife Sondi Wright, and widow Anita. Even his suicide in February 2005 is discussed on-screen by his son who was in the adjoining room when Thompson took his own life. His death is not celebrated but rather lamented. Without giving the whole conclusion away, the film does a remarkable job portraying a balanced picture of a polarizing American figure that is often revered as a cult hero today.
On a certain level, Thompson lived his life consistent to his own ethos and code of conduct to the very end. From that perspective his death, while saddening, should have been expected at any moment. He lived his life with little hope in anything other than the idea that sooner or later the world would start to make sense. It was probably incredibly frustrating for him to feel increasingly powerless against what he saw as an increasingly crazed and senseless world. The only logical escape in his mind was suicide, as tragic and sad as that was for his friends and family around him. That is the bittersweet nature of Thompson’s life; while it is invigorating to be exposed to his excitement and energy at his peak, it is disconcerting and sad to realize that his hope didn’t lie anywhere but in himself.