(No longer in theaters)
Alex Gibney, Graydon Carter, Jason Kliot, Joana Vincente, Eva Orner, Allison Ellwood
Jul 4, 2008
Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a tender, even-tempered elegy to a writer who at his peak could ingest staggering (literally) amounts of drugs and alcohol and transform, like Popeye after a can of spinach, into a superhuman version of himself—more trenchant, more cutting, more hilarious than any political journalist before or since. Writers of my generation rocked out to his prose. We dreamed of living that large. We drank whiskey from the bottle, gobbled down speed, and threw ourselves onto our manual typewriters. The upshot was posturing horseshit and trips to the emergency room. No one but Thompson succeeded in being at once so addled and so lucid—and after a while, tragically, neither did Thompson.
Gibney, who took home an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, his clear-eyed look at U.S.-sanctioned torture, sees Thompson as the kind of writer who, in a just universe, could have roused the populace to beat back the devil-bats Cheney and Bush. It’s good to recall how inspiring Thompson’s voice was in its prime. Although the readings by onetime Thompson impersonator Johnny Depp are a tad orotund, just hearing the words ibogaine and Muskie in the same sentence was enough to trigger my sense memories of laughing so hard at Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail I nearly swallowed my tongue. Footage of Thompson in his Hell’s Angels phase reminds you how many personae he straddled—the effete cigarette-holder freak and the hard-drinking motorcycle gunslinger. He was the most stirring advocate imaginable for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, good men and true (both interviewed here), yet compared to Thompson rather limp fish.
Douglas Brinkley (biographer) and Timothy Crouse (Boswell on the campaign trail) do a neat job of putting the work in historical context, while his first wife, Sandy, evokes a life in the Colorado compound that was more guns than roses. I missed two things in Gonzo. There’s no mention of Thompson’s account of the ’72 Democratic convention machinations that won McGovern the nomination—a dispatch that proves how far a gonzo reporter can go when all the circuits are firing. The second is footage of Thompson in his last decades, when he was so arrogantly incoherent that even his most adoring fans were disgusted. Gibney probably thought such footage would be exploitive, but it’s part of Thompson’s legacy, too. And watching him try—and fail—to recover the glorious voice of gonzo can only deepen our awe at how high he flew for a time.