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Hunter S. Thompson: Persona and Art

When considering Alex Gibney’s new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one can imagine the film like a road trip.
GonzoWhen considering Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one can imagine the film like a road trip. Gibney takes the driver’s seat, steering us towards selected landmarks, and historian Douglas Brinkley, chronicler of presidential lives and national tragedies as well as Thompson's biographer and literary executor, is on the passenger side, navigating and providing context. It's not just a two man show, however; reclining in the back seat is Johnny Depp, star of Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, providing the soundtrack via keenly empathic readings from Thompson’s work.


The title may seem artificially conjoined, the anarchism of the term "Gonzo" contrasted with the much more formal "The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." That latter portion is there for a reason: this is an intentionally comprehensive look at Thompson, although Gibney does leave some tangents tantalizingly unexplored. The word Gonzo looms large over the proceedings, though, and you can almost see it on the horizon, dripping with inkblots in that familiar Ralph Steadman style. And that’s not for nothing—if it looks like an imbalance, chances are that it’s intentional: Gibney’s own way of illustrating the way in which the style that Thompson developed may have undercut his own abilities as a writer. 


The film opens neither with its subject’s formative years nor his death. Instead, Gibney begins with Thompson turning on his television on the morning of September 11, 2001 and in turn typing out what looks, in retrospect, like a horrifically prescient column. A running motif in Gonzo is the continuing relevance of Thompson’s work and outraged sensibility to our present political situation. (As his credits include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning, Tribeca Film Festival '07 Best Documentary Feature Taxi to the Dark Side, clearly, Gibney knows his righteous anger.) From there, Thompson’s 2005 suicide is touched upon, and from there, the film follows and analyzes Thompson’s career, and aesthetic, in a largely linear fashion. Significant time is spent on his major works: Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.


The last of these forms one of the film’s two thematic hearts (the other being Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen), and during this time, Gonzo effectively becomes a documentary within a documentary on the 1972 Presidential campaign. George McGovern, Gary Hart, and Pat Buchanan are among those interviewed for this segment, as Gibney charts Thompson’s move from anonymous member of the press corps to committed McGovern supporter. Though Gibney does juxtapose contemporary and period footage in this segment—Presidents Nixon and Bush exhibiting similar mannerisms, troops bound for Vietnam segueing into troops bound for Iraq—he leaves room open for an equally relevant comparison. One could place Thompson’s coverage of the campaign, alternately irreverent and the work of a battered idealist, into the context of an increasingly partisan media. One could also root the transition of Thompson’s initial support for McGovern into harsh criticism into a post-primary debate held every four years by thinkers on both sides of the political divide.


Early in the film, Brinkley recalls an anecdote of Thompson learning the cadences of writing through typing and retyping The Greatgonzoed Gatsby. It’s that Thompson—a potential heir to the American literary tradition of Fitzgerald and Hemingway—that seems pitted against another, the founder and exemplar of a style he hadn't expected would resonate. Gibney details the evolution of Thompson’s “Raoul Duke” persona through the 70s and beyond, and presents differing versions of the man on film—both in the earlier documentary Breakfast with Hunter and in portrayals by Depp and Bill Murray, the latter in 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam. (It’s significant that, in the clips seen, the fictional Thompsons don’t appear to be more over-the-top than the genuine article.) Gibney explores Thompson’s own struggles with his own self-created persona, both in its role in ending his marriage and—via his frustrations with the Doonesbury character of Uncle Duke—Thompson’s running debate on whether to abandon it altogether. It’s here that the film is most critical of its subject, with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner arguing that Thompson’s best work was few and far between after the mid-70s.


Gonzo touches on the appropriate basics of Thompson’s life and style, showing his influence on both journalism and literary style as a whole. (Besides Brinkley, other literary lions like Tom Wolfe and Timothy Crouse weigh in on these matters.) If it leaves certain avenues unexplored—both personally and contextually—it also provides an abundance of raw material for those seeking to chart those routes. Gonzo at times feels like an oral history; at others, a tribute; at still others, a tragedy.


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