Considered next to Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is not a takedown of that which has come to pass, a la Iraq and Enron. Instead, Gibney's film is a lament for what might have been if one of the nation's prickliest nonfiction writers had hung around long enough to stick it to the Bush boys.
As cacophonous as one of Thompson's drug- and alcohol-fueled travelogues through the American dystopia, Gibney's film opens at the gun-stocked last stand, Thompson's Woody Creek, Colo., compound. Preparing for an upcoming turn as Thompson alter ego Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp reads the master's words like Burl Ives reciting 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Part hagiography, part head trip, Gonzo stitches together the Thompson legacy courtesy of some surprising high/low sources. There are the politicos, including a truly mind-bending appearance by Pat Buchanan offering some dude-ish affinity for off-the-leash Thompson. George McGovern, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter are on hand and, for the cultural camp, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Buffett. There are also the wives Thompson left behind after his 2005 suicide and his son Juan Thompson who cops to Hunter's gun problem and whose remark "it's a shame he wasn't around more" speaks to a sad, emotional undertow to Thompson's life beyond the media glare—and less often indulged in Gonzo. In a fascinating bit of back story, Gonzo details an early urge to epater le bourgeois rooted in Thompson's own single-parent Kentucky childhood that never appeared to wane.
The predominant mood is a stupefied amusement at the stunts Thompson got up to: the boozing, the speeding, the hot tub stew of naked chicks and the plentiful gunplay. First wife Sondi Wright is there to offer something more grounded: A vision of a man with as much potential for cruelty as for creativity, who could somehow simultaneously inhabit the roles of patriot and anarchist. Adding to the portrait of a hard-to-nail man is Thompson's groundbreaking chronicle of the Hell's Angels and what fellow journalist Tim Crouse calls a "milestone event," in Thompson's growing disillusionment with the American Dream after the head-cracking antics of cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. But multiple phantasmagorical scenes from Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas often reduce Gonzo to an over-spiced pudding of pastiche and talking heads. Matters are hardly helped with some cloying musical interludes (most egregiously, Don McLean's "American Pie").
Eventually, the story goes, Thompson's literary powers were diminished as his fame grew. He allowed himself to become a self-caricature, the "Duke" of the Doonesbury comic strip, too outsized to ever go journo incognito again. "He became a hostage to that persona," says Wenner, though Gonzo may do just as much to lock Thompson in amber as the last journalist rock star and wild man.
This article originally ran in a July 2008 issue of the New York Press.