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

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

Film review by: Witney Seibold



“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…


“And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

                                    -Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

            The grand tragedy of Hunter S. Thompson’s life, according to Alex Gibney’s new film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” is that he succumbed to his own celebrity. He started out as a troublemaker, prankster and drug-addled outsider, and he even pioneered a certain brand of wild, impressionist, subjective journalism that came to be known as Gonzo. His writings (notably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book about living with the Hell’s Angles, and extensive coverage of the 1972 Democratic campaign) made him famous. Sadly, when his face became recognized while he was reporting on local political speeches (he began signing more autographs than the astronauts and senators speaking), he lost hold of the anarchic anonymity that allowed him to get away with so much to begin with.

            He was prone to violent mood swings, was a horrifyingly enthusiastic gun nut, and famously took more drugs in a week than every member of The Doors did over their entire careers. Eventually, thanks to his overexposure and (likely) his drug use, he gave up trying to edgy; he had hit the wall. When he was dispatched to cover the famed Rumble in the Jungle, he ended up giving away his ticket, and spent the fight floating in his hotel’s pool with his longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman. He had given up. He famously took his own life in 2005 with a shotgun. It was exactly how he wanted to go, and many of his fans actually found poetry in the act, but his ex-wife and son didn’t see it that way.

            In the overview, Thompson led a bleak and depressing life. In the details, he was one of the funniest, most vivacious, and most daring writers of his generation. He was able to jettison the stuffy formality of his parent’s journalism, and cut straight to the subjective heart of the matter, often obscured by drugs, often fabricated, and always bracing, fun, fascinating, and convivial.

            “Gonzo” interviews Thompson’s surviving family members, as well as other writers like Tom Wolfe, politicians like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, and even a surprisingly game Pat Buchanan. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the 1997 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a film references heavily in this one) narrates the film and reads extensive passages from Thompson’s work.

            While a personal doc like “Breakfast with Hunter” may give us a closer look at the man himself, Gibney has provided us, with “Gonzo,” with one of the most holistic and most inspiring contemplations of this turbulent and brilliant and funny outsider. By the time the credits roll, with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” blasting at you, you will have a new appreciation for the man.

            Gibney is a skilled documentarian, having made “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and the Academy Award-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.” He brings a refreshing frankness to his films, without seeming polemical. He is a name to look out for.

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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