Was that a goddamned bat? Thompson in Gonzo.
The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
by Alex Gibney
35 years George McGovern, laughing, still can’t believe it.
A self-described “gonzo” journalist by the name of Hunter
S. Thompson wrote, for publication, that McGovern’s main opponent
in the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries, Hubert H. Humphrey,
should be “stuffed in a Goddamned bottle and sent out with
the Japanese current.”
McGovern, whose noble-but-doomed campaign Thompson covered
so well, is just one of many entertaining talking heads interviewed
in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark
Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room),
this almost-too-meticulous documentary chronicles the life
and work of Thompson, one of the more influential of the so-called
“new journalists” of the 1960s and ’70s.
Using more vintage footage that one would think could possibly
exist, and employing Gonzophile actor Johnny Depp to serve
as narrator (and occasional onscreen presence), Gibney digs
into the particulars with gusto. The film shows us Thompson’s
troubled early years as a poor kid among trust-fund babies
in the South; his Army career and subsequent career switch
to journalism; his break from journalistic “objectivity”;
his run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo.; his good years as a writer
and notorious years as a rum-swilling, peyote-gobbling celebrity.
And, finally, his long sad decline and suicide.
Thompson’s contribution was to write, brilliantly, about what
interested him in a way the captured the essence of
the “real” story. An assignment, in 1971, to cover the Kentucky
Derby turned into a long, brilliant excavation of a corrupt
culture. His coverage of the 1972 presidential race was as
crazily impressionistic as it was true—maybe U.S. Sen. Ed
Muskie wasn’t really addicted to an exotic hallucinogen
that addled his moods, but it was as logical an explanation
as any for why the former Democratic frontrunner suffered
a bizarre breakdown on the campaign trail.
As noted, the documentary has plenty of commentators—some,
like illustrator Ralph Steadman, more insightful than others.
Almost too many talking heads, really, though the film
could have used more (God help me) Pat Buchanan.
is worthwhile, and I unreservedly recommend it, but I still
prefer Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Thompson’s fiction
epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s as crazy
as the real Thompson, and just as revealing.