Review: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Okay, loyal Movie Chutzpah readers, I’ll have to ask you to bear with me on this one — I never dreamed that I would be writing a review about a documentary, and thus have no idea how this is going to go. I mean, in principal, I guess it should just be the same as a regular movie review, but it seems like it should be much different than that, for some reason. Well, here goes nothin’:
There’s an interesting dynamic working here, between the film about the man and the man himself. “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” moves seamlessly through a two-hour run time the same way Thompson’s own life played out: fast, unpredictable and fun to watch. If a documentary is supposed to imitate, honor the life of the fallen giant that the film is about, then this is just about as good as it gets.
In the same way that Thompson broke, nay smashed, the boundaries and rules of professional, objective journalism, “Gonzo” skews the line between documentary and fantastic movie, meshing straight documentary-style story telling with recreations, visually stunning animated cuts and humor, which leaves a certain bit of wonderment in the viewers minds. For example, while playing one of the classic tapes Thompson recorded during his infamous trip to Sin City (A trip which eventually was the inspiration for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), director Alex Gibney decided to show what appeared to be film from the actual trip. After the scene, I leaned over and asked whether or not that was real footage, a question my girlfriend was wholly unable to answer.
Thompson always contorted reality in his own work, as well. In a heavily covered and brilliantly put together piece of the flick, Gibney showed how skewed the line between fantasy and reality was in Thompson’s “Fear and and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” After being accused of making up a claim that democratic presidential hopeful George Muskie took an obscure drug called Ibogaine, Thompson was shown saying, “I never said he ate Ibogaine. I said there was a rumor … and there was. Of course, I made up the rumor.”
I am a huge fan of Thompson, and I went with more knowledge about him and his crazy-ass life than the average viewer. But even hardcore fans will find some great tidbits of interesting information embedded throughout the film. Like, for example, his attorney and he recorded a song about their trip to Las Vegas — Gibney was kind enough to put the song in the flick; There’s great footage of Thompson tearing ass in the desert with a Nixon mask on; And, of course, some of his most famous recordings (Hell’s Angel’s and the Las Vegas stuff) are thrown in. Just great, great stuff that I had yet to see, hear or learn about before I saw this flick.
As much fun as it to see this side of Thompson, “Gonzo” does a great job of balancing the erratic writer’s life, not only showcasing the good but also giving light to his vicious tirades, serious drug problems, infidelity and his eventual fall from grace after his biggest journalistic mishap, the botched assignment at the Thrilla in Manila. What “Gonzo” doesn’t do, thankfully, is insert judgments or questions of morality, so as to let the viewer walk out of the theater with his or her own opinions about Thompson.
The biggest chunk of the movie, and the part I found to be most interesting, was devoted to the year Thompson spent on the 1972 campaign trail. I’ve read the book eluded to earlier in this review, and I now have a much bigger appreciation for what he accomplished with it. When I read it, I had no idea how big of an impact the book made, nor did I have any reference to relate his words to the actions and such of most of the candidates. After getting to see footage of the candidate’s (particularly Muskie’s mental breakdown in Florida), his words take on such a deeper meaning. And, in my mind, that’s exactly what a good documentary should do, supply even the most knowledgeable with information they didn’t even have before they saw the flick — as I’ve said multiple times already, “Gonzo” did that over and over.
The faults I found were minimal at most. I wished to see more about Thompson’s relationship to two people: his attorney and Jimmy Buffet. I had no idea Thompson had a relationship with the latter, and without any preface or introduction, he was introduced as a guest interviewee in the documentary. I would’ve liked a quick backstory, a simple “how they met” would have done the trick. And of course, Thompson’s attorney was showcased during the Las Vegas portion of the movie, but his death wasn’t talked about (He took a trip to Mexico and disappeared forever. Thompson wrote an epic, moving obituary, which explained his attorney’s trouble with amphetamines and LCD-25). Once again, these are so small, I feel silly bringing them up — of course some things are going to be left out when you are only alloted two hours, and although I would’ve liked to see these two instances, I understand why they were left out.
The film’s end was particularly fitting, with each interviewee talking about how a voice as compelling as Thompson’s is sorely needed in the American politics of present. A moving collage of similar images of the Vietnam and Iraq wars was superimposed over the voices that wished for someone to shake up Washington D.C. the same way Thompson did over thirty years ago.
This was a perfect documentary to me — not only did the subject matter interest me, but it was executed in such a way that I enjoyed myself through every single one of the sad, funny, intense and otherwise moments. This is how a documentary is supposed to be.
9.5 out of 10 stars just because Jimmy Buffet sucks.