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

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


Reviewed by: Daniel Hooper

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” To anyone who’s read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas that line will need no introduction, so concisely does it establish this landmark of American literature - a book that introduced the world to a subjective style of journalism dubbed ‘gonzo’ and turned its author, Hunter S Thompson, from a journalist into a celebrity. Thompson is many things to many people - a writer, a drug-fiend, a spokesman for a generation, a gun nut - and would later become a controversial but influential political commentator, vehemently criticising Richard Nixon and credited with helping Jimmy Carter into presidency.

Director Alex Gibney, meanwhile, is this generation’s most important political documentary maker - Enron: The Smartest Men In The Room is a dramatic story of the corruption inherent in modern business and humanity, while his follow-up Taxi To The Dark Side is a concise articulation of the bleak truth of America’s war on terror. After focusing on the ills of modern America, it’s somewhat fitting that Gibney would be the man to document the life of a maverick writer in search of the American Dream.

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Few films can boast a line-up as eclectic as Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, the Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger, the illustrator Ralph Steadman, and former president Jimmy Carter, but Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr Hunter S Thompson is one of them. It is the mark of a true character that even enemies have great respect for you, and one of great coups of Gonzo is getting an interview with Nixon’s right-hand man Pat Buchanan, whom Thompson described as "a half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo". With speakers ranging from family and friends, to writers, long-suffering editors, and the aforementioned celebrities, Gibney constructs a flab-free narrative based on first-hand accounts of the stories behind the writing, and Depp’s narration of Thompson’s prose.

As with Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Gibney sparingly uses dramatisation to add to the story visually but for the most part, he captures the atmosphere with archive material and music of the time, and footage of Thompson’s campaign for Sheriff and TV appearances go some way to explaining just why he remains so popular.

Despite some priceless interviews and archive footage finds, Gonzo does occasionally feel like a Hunter S Thompson greatest hits package, mixing a lot of familiar footage (at least to some Thompson fans) at the cost of other points of interest; it says a great deal about Terry Gilliam's spot-on adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas that clips from it feature so heavily in Gonzo. Though it is well-documented that Thompson’s best period was between the years 1965-75, it’s disappointing that one of his finest early works, The Rum Diary, is not mentioned at all, while his latter works are too easily dismissed.

This is a detailed tribute to the writer, balanced by the portrayal of the Thompson’s destructive side and were the Doctor of Journalism around today he would probably approve. Gibney portrays the man’s excesses in a way that is not excessive and wisely lets the writing speak for itself. He also draws parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, showing the rotten core of American politics remains to this day, but sadly this modern time of warfare lacks a figure with Thompson’s righteous wit. Those looking for an introduction to Thompson without having to, y’know, read, will be better served watching Fear And Loathing, but for fans of the man and his works this is a great exercise in preaching to the converted.

Reviewed on: 16 Dec 2008
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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson packshot
A documentary tribute to the legendary creator of gonzo journalism.
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Director: Alex Gibney

Writer: Alex Gibney, featuring the writings of Hunter S Thompson

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas