Thompson, Silly... Not the Muppets!

“Gonzo journalism” is subjectively written, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The style tends to blend factual and fictional elements to emphasize an underlying message and engage the reader. According to wikipedia, the term was first used in 1970 to describe an article by journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Gonzo:  The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is Alex Gibney’s attempt at the penultimate documentary about the journalistic career of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Unfortunately, there is far too much emphasis on the 1972 presidential campaign… and a surprising lack of real detail about Dr. Thompson’s personal life, which would might have helped those most unfamiliar with him understand that he wasn’t just the living embodiment of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

Hunter S. ThompsonStill, for those who were not yet around in the ’60s, or people like me who were too young and too middle-class to know about hard living, hard drinking, and hard drug-taking people like Hunter S. Thompson, this documentary is a good start into figuring out who he was—and why figuring that out might matter.

The documentary is narrated in part by Johnny Depp as he reads from Thompson’s writings. Depp had picked up the Gonzo gauntlet while studying for and playing Hunter in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. After watching live film clips of Dr. Thompson in this documentary, I see now that Depp’s portrayal of him is genius, and the actor clearly has the right to read for him. Depp was also present when Hunter’s ashes were shot into the Colorado Rockies one night from a 153-foot cannon bearing the image of the red Gonzo fist. Thompson loved guns, and he wanted to go out with a bang!  That, by the way, is also how he killed himself in 2005.

The great enigma of Hunter S. Thompson seems to lie in trying to understand how a man who drank a fifth of Wild Turkey every day, took every kind of drug known (and probably unknown) to man, and led a life filled with long bouts of total depravity and driving around in cars and on motorcycles like a maniac could also be a deep thinker who wrote some of the most fascinating and thought-provoking articles and books decrying the death throes of the American Dream. Demon possession comes to mind, perhaps; and that might also explain why Thompson never saw himself as the guru that everyone else seems to have. He was a driven man, and—as his friends and lovers and colleagues claim in this documentary—a man who could be soft, loving, romantic, and kind one moment and then hell-on-wheels crazy the next. Not one person from George McGovern to Pat Buchanan to Kurt Vonnegut to Jimmy Carter can help but shake their heads and say, with a wry smile, that Hunter S. Thompson was a crazy and unique kind of person.

Sadly, even his own son approves of the way that Hunter died—on his own terms and at his own time. But I say that the shortcoming of this film lies in the way that the participants glorify a man who gave up and checked out. I say that we need voices like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to make us think instead of following along—especially  in our current political system and foreign policy—as docile, brainless sheep allowing and expecting ourselves to be taken care of instead of finding out what we believe and standing up for it. I guess I am really judgmental on suicide. It never brings resolution to anything.

What Gibney does well in this film is balance the “sane” Hunter with the “insane” Hunter so cunningly that you won’t likely leave the theater thinking that such a travesty of a human being has nothing to tell us. I find myself strangely drawn to discover more about the man, and perhaps even become something of a Gonzo myself. I think I already have some gonzo traits and would be in some very good company.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is rated R for “drug and sexual content, language and some nudity.” Deservedly so. There are a few instances of graphic nudity, a lot of drug ingestion, and some pretty rough language. That being said, this documentary is not a vehicle for children or even teens. It will have the most appeal for people who lived through the 60s and 70s and have some good knowledge of the war in Vietnam and the political climate of those decades; but many of Thompson’s beliefs will parallel and resonate with those born after 1980, who may very likely elect Obama this fall.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy attended a promotional screening of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.