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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) - Movie Review

Gibney Goes Gonzo

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Alex Gibney’s documentary about bad boy journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is both a memorial exaltation and a lament.

Thompson, equally famous for his railings against the Nixon administration in the pages of Rolling Stone and his well-chronicled personal adventures with drugs, alcohol and the Hell‘s Angels, was an iconic counter cultural hero of the 1960s and 70s. His work was the epitome of Gonzo journalism, the highly subjective writing style that expressed his personal views on politics and culture--always fascinating, usually somewhat hallucinatory and sometimes twisted.

Documenting a Dramatic Life

Gibney’s tribute to Thompson lauds the writer’s pointed commentaries, his singular perceptions, brilliant use of language and willingness to expose himself along with his subjects. The lament is that Thompson isn’t here to wield his wit against the Bush administration and current events.

In fact, Thompson was a manic depressive, self-destructive person whose drug and alcohol dependency--some would call it self-medication--eventually disabled him. He’d retreated to his hideaway home in Colorado, wasn’t writing much, wasn't in good health. And, he did himself in on February 20, 2005.

Thompson shot himself in the head with a .44 Magnum, one of many guns he, a lifelong member of the NRA and gun enthusiast, kept in his house. His suicide was as dramatic as his life--he was, at the time he shot himself, on the phone with his wife, and his son was in the next room. They and the world were shocked but not entirely surprised by Thompson‘s suicide.

Gibney’s portrait of Thompson captures his dramatic personality and the drama of his life with archival footage of the writer shot during various periods of his life, as well as photographs of Thompson‘s childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, where he and his two brothers were raised by their widowed librarian mother.

Gibney's Strong Narrative

The narrative includes many excerpts from Thompson‘s standout titles:
  • Hells' Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs - 1966, based on Thompson’s year of living, riding and drinking with the wild bunch
  • The Battle of Aspen - the first of Thompson pieces for Rolling Stone was about his own 1970 campaign to become sheriff of Apsen, Colorado, on the "Freak Power" platform, which advocated legalization of marijuana and protective environmental policies and laws
  • The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved- this Thompson essay on the annual horse race established his Gonzo style and was his first collaboration with illustrator Ralph Steadman
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - which began as a piece for Sports Illustrated about a motorcycle race in Las Vegas but evolved into a sadly affecting generational document about searching for the American dream. It was adapted for screen as a narrative feature directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp
  • And, perhaps most influential of all... Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 - Thompson’s personal account of the democratic primaries

Most of the excerpts are read by Johnny Depp, who was a good friend of Thompson, and who starred in Terry Gilliam‘s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. [The film is liberally sprinkled with clips from that film, as well as from Art Lnson’s Where The Buffalo Roam and Wayne Ewing’s documentary Breakfast With Hunter.

Meet Hunter Thompson's Friends

Gibney also interviewed a wide range of people who knew, read, liked and were influenced by Thompson, including politicos Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart and (surprisingly) Pat Buchanan, plus colleagues Jann Wenner, Tom Wolfe, Tim Crouse and Ralph Steadman, and former wives Sondi Wright and Anita Thompson, family and other influential friends.

The film also captures Thompson’s times, filled with the social turmoil and political rift caused by the Vietnam War, with an exciting, emotional and appropriate sound track.

Gibney’s direction of Gonzo is as effective as it is in his Academy Award winning Taxi To The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. His masterful style is a perfect balance of verite reporting and dramatic effect. He doesn’t pretend that he doesn’t have an opinion, but he doesn’t tell you what to think either. But he does get you to think about things.

Film Details

Release Date: July 2008

Rated R

Parental Rating: Cautionary; some scenes objectionable

Country Of Origin: U.S.

Running Time: 119 mins.

Format: Color/Black & White

Production Co(s).: HDNET Films

Released By: Magnolia Pictures

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