“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” is a remarkably balanced look at a man whose creativity sprang from his perpetual state of imbalance.
Hunter S. Thompson was, of course, a brilliant writer but also famously self-destructive; he ended his life, a never-ending orgy of booze and drugs, when he shot himself in 2005 at age 67. But his death was an event that the Kentucky gentleman had planned meticulously, complete with a memorial ceremony in which his ashes were blasted into the night sky from a 15-story tower.
Director Alex Gibney, an Academy Award winner this year for the documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” explores the conflicting sides of Thompson’s larger-than-life personality in clear-eyed fashion. He has created a film that’s fair and thorough — something Thompson’s adventures in journalism never were, despite their staggering innovation and influence.
Gibney interviews everyone from Jimmy Carter to Jimmy Buffett. He coaxes fond smiles from George McGovern and anguished tears from Jann Wenner. And he’s culled from hundreds of photos and more than 200 hours of audio clips and home movies of Thompson in all his gonzo glory.
Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and became his friend, provides narration from his works in warm, low-key tones. (Gibney has also included some of the more hallucinatory clips from that underappreciated movie, directed by Terry Gilliam and based on Thomspon’s seminal book, as well as a moment from 1980’s “Where the Buffalo Roam,” starring Bill Murray as a cartoony version of Thompson.)
Considering the wealth of available material and the rich subject matter, it’s actually amazing Gibney got the running time down to two hours. He probably could have spent that much time alone on Thompson’s botched trip to Zaire to cover the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight for Rolling Stone magazine.
That was a rare misstep for a man who revolutionized not just journalism but writing itself. Yes, we have an adequate amount of admiration for Thompson’s prowess from colleagues such as Tom Wolfe, but we also have former editors recalling how he never made a deadline and was consistently remorseless about inconveniencing them. First wife Sondi Wright remembers that he could be warm and generous but that he was also capable of volatile rage — and she probably stuck by him for far too long when young, naked women were traipsing through the kitchen of their Woody Creek, Colo., home, even though this was a time of free love.
As Thompson flourished as both a writer and pop culture figure, he was as acutely perceptive of himself as he was of the politicians he covered during the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns. He knew that the cigarette holder and the sunglasses, the guns and the drugs, were all part of an elaborate character he’d concocted for himself. Or as Wenner, his longtime editor at Rolling Stone, puts it so well: “Hunter wanted a persona, but he became a hostage to that persona.”
Some of the musical choices from the 1960s and 1970s are a bit obvious (Dylan, “American Pie,” etc.) and we don’t see enough of Thompson in his later years. What we do see of him — stooped, addled, nearly incomprehensible — is startling compared to the force he was at the height of his powers.
Gibney’s film serves as a reminder that Thompson was the kind of writer we all wish we had the bravery and the brains to be — not to mention the liver and the stomach.