In Gonzo – The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney presents a biography on his life and explores his writing through the use of archival material, some of which is available to public for the first time, and new interviews of family and friends. The film is a fitting tribute to the man Thomas Wolfe called, “the [20th] century's greatest comic writer in the English language.”
Narrated by Johnny Depp, Gonzo’s main focus is on Hunter when he was on the top of his game for about 10 years, a envious decade for any writer, in which he wrote three brilliant books: the straightforward journalism of Hell’s Angels, which sprang out of a 1965 article he wrote for The Nation; his landmark piece of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he examined the failure of the American Dream promised by the ‘60s counterculture; and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of his coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone that Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s campaign manager, called “the least factual, most accurate account.”
During that time period, Hunter also stepped to the political forefront in 1970 when he unsuccessfully ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on a platform that included legalization of drugs for individual recreational use and renaming Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to drive off investors. Hunter showed himself a shrewd campaigner. He shaved his head bald so he could refer to the Republican incumbent as “my long-haired opponent.”
After such a sustained period of quality and other factors in his life, it is no surprise Hunter was unable to reach those great heights as a writer again. The film suggests that the beginning of the end took place when he blew an assignment for Rolling Stone when he and friend/illustrator Ralph Steadman were sent to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman fight, better known as the Rumble in the Jungle. Hunter thought the fight would be a waste of time so he sold the tickets and spent his time in the hotel pool.
The drugs and the pressure to repeat appeared to take their toll, and he became a victim of his success as people expected the larger-than-life character rather than the actual writer. In “Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision” from the BBC’s Omnibus he stated, “I'm leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I'm not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I'm not sure who to be.” It seemed to become much easier to give the people the performance they wanted rather than recreating the magic on the page.
Of course, there’s only so much time to cover a life, but we get short shrift of the periods that bookend his heights of fame. We get a glimpse of the rebellious young man of Louisville, Kentucky. He doesn’t really start to come into focus until his first wife Sandy comes onto the scene. Then after his divorce from her, the last twenty-five years of his life fly by. He wrote infrequently for Rolling Stone and then landed a regular gig at ESPN.com’s Page 2 website from 2000 until he committed suicide in 2005.
He was still an enjoyable read in his later years, but no longer received the same accolades, which in all fairness, may well have been unreasonable to expect; just because he set the bar high doesn’t mean he should be expected to cross it each time, especially when so many others never came close. His last flash of genius was an insightful and prescient piece about the direction this country was headed, written hours after the events of 9/11. The film also provides footage from his joyous funeral where friends and family gathered as his ashes were shot over Owl Farm from a large cannon.
Gonzo – The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a very good and balanced look at the man and the myth. Fans and the curious should be informed and entertained by Gibney’s film.