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

Director Alex Gibney better watch his back. He is a marked man in my eyes. I absolutely hate it when someone like him makes a film that is so degrading, so self-esteem demolishing for me. Every time a visionary documentarian makes a film that brilliantly chronicles something like the life of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, I feel completely and utterly uncultured.

Until my screening of this film, I was only remotely familiar with the legend of Hunter S. Thompson. I knew that he was a man who wrote articles for Rolling Stone magazine and was very popular back in the late 60s and 70s. Beyond that, he was no more a part of my daily life than people who currently write for Rolling Stone. And seeing as I am a subscriber that never actually reads Rolling Stone, that isn’t saying much.

Gibney’s film — the tragic near masterpiece that it is — presents Hunter S. Thompson in a very honest light. We get to see the man as he really was, mostly through his own eyes. He was harsh, unforgiving and always passionate about his causes. The doc follows him from the early days when he rode alongside the Hells Angels right on through his ridiculous campaign for Sheriff in Aspen, Colorado and further on to his groundbreaking coverage of the 1972 presidential election.

The film also profiles the advent of Gonzo journalism, Thompson’s lasting legacy. Gonzo is a type of journalism that is written subjectively, often with the reporter as part of the story via a first person narrative. It was the way that Thompson wrote — always a participant in the story and always able to infuse his writing with his own personal thoughts and feelings. It was a concept that was easy to connect with for me, a blogger by trade. In a way, Hunter S. Thompson ushered in the style of journalism that continues to threaten traditional media today — the type of journalism that keeps Variety in fear of all those damn “bloggers”.

Narrated by Johnny Depp (who famously portrayed Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Gibney’s documentary is engaging, upbeat and politically relevant. Some may not appreciate that last part, but the modern political relevance could not be avoided — as Hunter S. Thompson wrote very actively about the Bush administration leading up to his suicide in 2005. For me, there will be an unavoidable love/hate relationship with this film and its maker. I absolutely loved the film, but certainly hate filmmaker Alex Gibney — because now I have to go out and guiltily buy all of Hunter S. Thompson’s novels so that I won’t feel so uncultured.

Grade: A+

Keep an eye on our Sundance 2008 Homepage for more from Park City.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet. As of yet, no one has stopped him.

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