Hunter S. Thompson’s head was way farther up his own ass than Gonzo acknowledges.
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON directed by Alex Gibney, screenplay by Gibney based on the writings of Thompson. A Mongrel Media release. 120 minutes. Opens Friday (July 18). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
Hunter S. Thompson doc lacks perspective
How you respond to Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson depends on how you feel about Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
If you liked Gilliam’s fevered, spasmodic adaptation of Thompson’s rightly revered journalistic breakthrough, then you’ll really enjoy this documentary. Gibney not only illustrates the central section with clips from Gilliam’s film, but also employs its star, Johnny Depp, to read passages of Thompson’s work onscreen.
On the other hand, if you thought Gilliam didn’t quite understand Thompson’s text and just used it as an excuse to goof around in the desert with Depp and Benicio Del Toro, you’ll find Gibney’s movie similarly disappointing – which, as you may have guessed, is how I reacted.
Gibney’s previous docs include Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and recent Oscar winner Taxi To The Dark Side. He’s branching out here, putting aside the dry, strictly journalistic approach of his earlier films and going for a more impressionistic portrait of his subject, alternating staged illustrations of Thompson’s audiotapes with a mixture of archival footage and interviews.
The archival stuff is terrific: Thompson being confronted on a TV show by one of the Hell’s Angels he dissected in his first book; extensive footage of Thompson’s doomed run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado; flashes of Thompson on the campaign trail in 1972 alongside George McGovern, the long-shot Democratic candidate who became Thompson’s personal crusade; images (and audio) of Thompson in Zaire for the Ali-Foreman fight in 1974 – a writing assignment that marked the beginning of his professional collapse.
But Gibney’s bought so completely into Thompson’s gonzo godhead persona that he can’t – or won’t – see the man behind it. Yes, there’s something totally awesome about two guys driving through the desert, blitzed out of their minds on speed and beer and anything else they could gobble, but there’s also something kind of pathetic and irresponsible about it as well, especially since Thompson spent the last three decades of his life disappearing into his own invented alter ego.
And I’m pretty sure Thompson would have been thoroughly disgusted by Gibney’s decision to score his life with half the soundtrack of Forrest Gump.