July 24, 2008


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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (R)
The life of Hunter S. Thompson is laid out in archive photos and footage and current interviews with friends and family in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a documentary about the freak-power-iest journalist of modern times.

We get the full story of the good doctor here, from his upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky (where the early death of his father introduced him to the inequities of class), to the hippie-love period of mid-1960s San Francisco, where Thompson seems to have been the most content. We see him come into national fame from his coverage of the Hells Angels, first for an article for The Nation and then for his book Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. His apex is hit during the early 1970s, when he starts writing for Rolling Stone, first about his own attempt to run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., and then about the 1972 presidential campaign, and when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the book that inspired and ruined scores of young journalists who came after him.

Hunter S. Thompson — does it bring up real-time memories of a journalist who wove fact with fantasy to create a tonally accurate portrait of the late 1960s and the 1970s, or do you think of a guy writing about “back then” who you discovered in college? Which way you go on that question probably determines a lot of how you feel about this movie. Personally, I’m the second group, though I’d argue that makes me no less of a fan — I even imitated (poorly) some of Thompson’s style for a political column I wrote in college (thank god the Internet was not something we bothered with then). I think the difference is that you have a lot less sympathy for the importance a generation places on itself when you yourself are in the generation that came afterward. Thusly, when Jann Wenner, Tom Wolfe and Tim Crouse talk about Thompson as a speaking-truth-to-power genius, I occasionally wanted to say, OK, I get it, good writer, but even if you’re using drug binges to describe the death of the American dream you really ought to meet your deadlines.

Of course, even with my Generation X sensibilities, I’m not the only one who could see the frayed edges of the gonzo journalist pose. His first wife, now known as Sondi Wright, seems to have become weary pretty fast of the ways the rock and roll life intruded on their family. His son, Juan, clearly loves and admires his father but in his descriptions of him we see glimpses of a kid wishing for more time with his dad. And friends including Jimmy Buffett talk about the horrible writer’s block that seems to have hit him at different times during the 1980s and 1990s.

Why? Well, that brings us to the other Thompson, the one who was a romantic. Like a girl who keeps offering up her whole heart in search of Mr. Right, Thompson seems to give all his hopes and optimism over to politicians who ultimately don’t fulfill the great faith he has in them. He loves Bobby Kennedy and is crushed when he’s killed. He becomes a champion of George McGovern and watches him fail in 1972. Years later, he becomes enamored of Jimmy Carter while listening to the at-the-time still-future president give a speech. The documentary leads us to believe that with each heartbreak Thompson got angrier, became more like the characters he created and less like the kid who typed out The Great Gatsby over and over to learn how to write. By the time he ultimately ends his own life in 2005, the movie seems to tell us, he’d become more about the character Hunter S. Thompson than the author.

We get this enthralling portrait of a larger-than-life but imperfect man through archival footage, photos, recent interviews and through his own works, read by Johnny Depp, who played Thompson’s alter ego in the 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing. The result is a picture that mixes the public image with the private guy, the family man with the superstar. Even if you think you know Thompson, there’s something to learn here — like how much he really did seem to want to believe in the ability of politics to set things right or how much his own limitations might have upset him.

Even more than the man, Gonzo gives a good sense of Thompson’s place in the political landscape. The movie benefits from the fact that — in addition to family and friends — it also includes interviews with people Thompson covered. McGovern, Carter and, most entertainingly perhaps, Pat Buchanan help provide that context which those of us who discovered Thompson later, who maybe have only his Sept. 11-themed “Hey Rube” column as an example of Thompson’s commentary on a contemporary event, can have a hard time seeing just by reading his greatest hits of the 1960s and 1970s.

Context is ultimately what this movie does best. Perhaps it doesn’t completely explain Thompson the man but it does draw a pretty complete picture of his place in the times. B

Rated R for drug and sexual content, language and some nudity. Directed by Alex Gibney, Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is an hour and 58 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Magnolia Films.