Saturday, July 19, 2008

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

Dir. Alex Gibney

Viewed: From the Balcony

There isn't a writer I'm more familiar with than Hunter S. Thompson. I've read all his books and over 1000 pages of the personal correspondence he's published in his two "Fear and Loathing Letters" volumes (third and last to be coming out soon). So I'm probably a bit more susceptible to this new Alex Gibney documentary than the average viewer out there with a passing knowledge of the man's work. But what's great about this movie is that it's highly accessible and not the work of a over praising fanboy. It a very level headed view of the author and journalist and is not afraid to doll out it's admiration while keeping a critical eye on the pitfalls he hit in the last few decades of his life.

Though it does pick generously from a couple of documentaries I already own -- namely, Breakfast With Hunter (a great fly-on-the-wall movie made in his later years) and the BBC documentary from the early 80s that is found as a supplement on the indispensable Criterion edition of Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- Gonzo features hilarious and touching new interviews with everyone from his family and landlord to Pat Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Douglas Brinkley Jr. continues to prove to be the foremost Thompson historian and guides us through his adolescent years leading up to the publication of Hell's Angels. Johnny Depp works as kind of a Thompson voice, reading passages from his work here and there. Of course Jann Werner pops up semi-frequently and though I pretty much despise the guy for shamelessly exploiting Thompson's death to fill his own pockets while screwing over his family, there's no denying the guy was a constant figure throughout his life. But the real surprising treasures to be found in the movie are some of Thompson's own field recordings that he made while on the job in Vegas, on the '72 campaign trail and on that dreaded night in Africa during the Ali - Forman fight that marked the moment when his own wave reached its high water mark and started pulling back.

The movie's great success is in its unflinching portrait of how a man can become his own worst enemy. The BBC documentary features probably the best interview with Hunter that you could ever hope for. In it he talks about how he's created a monster in his Raul Duke alter ego -- the pseudonym he used in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" -- the character that would spawn a Doonesbury caricature and the person that everyone expected his to be whenever he walked through a door. His is ultimately a tragic story. Of course, this is what Thompson chronicled best: the tragedy of a lost America, the fear and loathing you feel when the country you love is spinning further and further away from its ideal.

The movie certainly leaves you a bit bummed out. There's no denying the parallels of the Nixon and Bush eras and more than a few people express their disappointment that Hunter isn't around to stoke the fires of rage over what's happening these days to the America he loved. At the same time, it shows that Hunter was more aware than anyone of his limitations in his old, weathered age. While he was still able to fire off great articles leading up to his suicide in 2005 (some of the work he did for ESPN magazine is brilliant including the eerily prescient Sept 11th article that begins the movie) it was obvious he knew that his voice no longer served as the rallying cry it once did.

The movie captures that authoritative voice he did have in the 70s in a riveting way and with great effect. The footage of the Thompson for Sheriff race that occurred in Aspen is priceless and there's nothing quite as heartbreaking as Hunter's concession speech to his followers when he lost the race by a handful of votes: "Well, unfortunately this proves what I set out to do... the American Dream is fucked." Pan over to young woman crying with her hands in her face. The footage and conversations with people from the '72 presidential campaign trail probably give people the greatest sense of the impact Hunter S. Thompson had on American journalism. His book on the subject is still a touchstone of political journalism -- a scathing look at the fallibility of the system as well as still being funny as hell. The footage of Hunter explaining the Muskie controversy to a talk show host (he wrote that there was a rumor on the campaign trail that a candidate was abusing an obscure drug called ibogaine that was being administered by a Brazilian doctor -- sure, he's the one that started the rumor, does that mean he can't write about the rumor?) makes for one of the more laugh-out-loud moments of the movie.

Any movie that can get across to people that Hunter S. Thompson was more than just a drug fueled, gun loving nut famous for getting loaded in Las Vegas and writing about it is good stuff in my book. While Gonzo is missing any sort of delicate touch in some of it's song choices and juxtapositions it manages to be heartfelt, funny, riveting and inspiring -- just like the man himself.

No comments: