AFI Dallas 08: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

AFI Dallas Film Festival

Every journalist who actually cares about journalism knows the legend of Hunter S. Thompson. They know about his love affair with guns, explosives and other things that go “Boom” and can wake up entire counties. They know about his drug fueled, whiskeyed-up journeys through the heart of the American dream from the fake glittery veneer of Las Vegas to the campaign trail of several presidential elections. They know about the cars he wrecked, hotels he crashed and bill he skipped out on all in the name of pursuing the ultimate story.

What they may not realize is even though his style of reporting changed the very nature and soul of journalism, his fame and reputation also may have destroyed it and ultimately himself.

Director Alex Gibney, director of the penetrating and engaging documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, takes on Thompson in his latest documentary with HDNet Films and manages to tackles both the good and the bad side of the Good Doctor’s legendary life.

Gibney opens the film with a reading from Thompson’s “Hey Rube” column, an online column he penned for ESPN’s Page 2 Magazine, on the Sept. 11 attacks. Actor Johnny Depp, who prepared to play Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by living with and befriending the real Thompson at his ranch in Aspen, Colo., narrates Thompson’s words throughout the film, but the opening words are undoubtedly the most profound because they pretty accurately predict the events that are to follow the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Then the film kicks into gear and takes the audience through Thompson’s turbulent beginnings and rise to fame as a journalist, novelist and writer who slowly began deconstructing the reporting process and turning it into “Gonzo,” a form of reporting that puts the journalist into the story he is covering and gives him total control over what he sees and how he sees it.

Gonzo: The Life and Times of Hunter S ThompsonGibney cleverly uses Hunter’s style and tone to drive the movie from beginning to end. His visual interpretations of Thompson’s work are vivid and bold. There is a risk of taking Thompson’s work so hard and loud that they come out looking like a third-rate heavy metal music video, but Gibney knows when to pop them an upper and when to slip them a downer at just the right times.

The film also does a good job of balancing clips and video footage from Thompson’s life with interviews with his family members, friends, journalism associates, political allies and even his political enemies. The political subjects Gibney chose to interview (former presidential contender George McGovern, former president Jimmy Carter, former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan) are among the film’s most interesting points because they portray Thompson as a man who had a great passion for his country and his government and did more than light things on fire and shoot wild boar with an automatic machine gun. They also drew the most cheers and laughter from the audience. They even managed to make Buchanan funny.

The most surprising section of the film is Thompson’s slow and steady breakdown. Since everyone knows the stories of drunken excess and total disregard for public safety and property, you’d expect the wild binge drinking and shotgun blasting Thompson would be just as big of a hoot on the screen and while they have some hilarious moments, it’s really more sad. Thompson ends up destroying himself with the very image he helped to create to break down his own enemies.

By the time Thompson commits suicide, a wave of anger and frustration came over me: anger at the establishment for failing to heed his warnings, anger at the media for driving any trace of humor and pathos out of their industry in order to preserve their good standing with the status quo, anger at his readers for turning him into a literary Johnny Knoxville and anger at the man himself for leaving the world when it really needs Thompson most and not Raoul Duke.

Gibney sadly proves that Thompson was too weird to live and too rare to die.

Grade: A

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