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Jesus! Was that a goddamned bat? Thompson in Gonzo.

Crash and Burn

By Shawn Stone

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

Directed by Alex Gibney

After 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.

Gonzo 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.

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