When Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson starts, we get footage of the World Trade Center on 9/11. As we watch the buildings collapse, the familiar voice of Johnny Depp narrates from an article written by Thompson. By that time, Thompson was no longer making headlines as a gonzo fanatic journalist and was just coasting along as a sport’s journalist. On this violent day in American history, Thompson took a break from sports and wrote a piece reflecting on how America was now involved in a religious war. He announced that under George W. Bush, the U.S. would find someone to punish for these attacks and mentioned possibilities of Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq. He also mentioned the government would clamp down on everyone, regardless of who they were or where they lived.
It is with this opening that we learn much about the man this documentary portrays. Thompson was a man out of place in society, unwilling to hold his tongue, and a visionary who could not be anything if not interesting. He was also a mad genius of written prose.
What works best about this documentary is it sought to learn the truth about the man, Hunter S. Thompson, and not ramble on about the mythical Raoul Duke, Thompson’s alter ego. Director Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his politically charged Taxi to the Dark Side, chooses to find what made the man behind the mask tick. Gibney has proven to be one of the new masters of documentary filmmaking since his break out feature, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and once again proves that he understands what makes this medium work so well.
Once we finish the opening narration, we are presented with a quick news clip announcing the suicide of Thompson in 2005 and then cut to Johnny Depp reading directly out of Thompson’s novel, Hell’s Angels. Depp is the perfect man to narrate this film, as many people best know Thompson through Depp’s portrayal of him in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For the people wanting to learn about the creature known as Raoul Duke, that is the place to look. For anyone wanting to learn about the doctor who created this Frankenstein, this documentary is a perfect starting point.
The filmmakers talk to Hell’s Angels member Sonny Barger, who achieved notoriety both through Thompson’s Hell’s Angels novel as well as his attendance at the tragic Rolling Stone’s Altamont Concert, where members of the Angels killed a man in the crowd during the show. He appeared as a complete asshole in the amazing Rolling Stone’s documentary Gimme Shelter, and continues that trait here as he calls Thompson one of the greatest writers America will ever have, although he remains a jerk in Barger’s eyes.
Gibney ignores much of Thompson’s childhood and developmental years, only mentioning that Thompson grew up lower middle class and never had anything handed to him. The documentary fast forwards to his dealings with the Hell’s Angels, which is smart because Gibney uses Thompson’s own writings to try to discover the truth behind the façade Thompson built around himself.
As we start contrasting the then innocent Thompson with the anti-establishment Angels, we see Thompson beginning to develop the personality that will eventually transform him into the Raoul Duke character. Listening to the classic footage of Angels arguing that Thompson was over embellishing the actual events proves almost beyond a shadow of a doubt Thompson was simply writing the truth, in an elegant and poetically controversial way.
Gibney realizes to understand the emotional development of Thompson, you must understand the history at the time of his early writings. Much time is given to the political turmoil of the 60s, from the death of Bobby Kennedy to the police brutality during anti-war protests. Johnny Depp reading from the books, present day interviews with friends and associates, and the classic footage of Thompson himself is where the film works best.
There are problems with this documentary. I feel there is too much footage from the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which goes against the goal of finding the real Hunter S. Thompson amongst the mythology the Terry Gilliam movie helped establish. Luckily, the movie recovered from this stretch and hits its stride when it approaches Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and proves what an influence Thompson could be on the youth of America.
George McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz said it best when he described Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as “the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”
It is very interesting to hear from political luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and George McGovern, who all received various portrayals in Thompson’s writing. They all chime in with amusement concerning the writing style of Thompson, and take his portrayals of them with great humor. The movie goes into great detail concerning Thompson’s attempts to help mold The United States into the country of his dreams. While he failed in his backing of the McGovern campaign, he finally found a winning horse to back in Jimmy Carter.
The documentary works as a history lesson of American culture as seen through the writing of Hunter S. Thompson. It shows the development of Thompson’s life as it was formed through the changes in the country, the intolerance of society as a whole, and the inability of a man to accept the demands of conformity. For anyone who loves the idea of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist, the movie following the political section is hard to watch, as it details the decline of Thompson as a writer and his slipping into an almost self parody. It is the fall of a once great man, and we all know how that story ends.
“I’m really in the way as a person. The myth has taken over. I find myself an appendage. I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It might be better if I died. Then people could take the myth and make films.” – Hunter S. Thompson
A documentary exists to inform and educate people about its topic. Hunter S. Thompson has developed a reputation as a cult figure and a man that outsiders can relate and look up to as a hero of free speech. I am afraid that many people only know him as his gonzo persona. What this documentary does is paint a picture of Hunter S. Thompson, the man, the myth, the legend. It paints a picture of a man whose life was full of excess but showed hints of his genius throughout. The greatest success of the film is I left with the desire to buy everything Thompson ever wrote. It also makes me want to work harder to become a better writer. That makes this documentary a great success in my eyes.