Thursday, September 04, 2008

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

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008, dir. Alex Gibney) narrates the life and career of new journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The film pays appropriate homage to Thompson while at the same time maintaining a certain objectivity as well. It divides Thompson's career into halves. The first begins in the early 1960s and continues on through Thompson's early magazine journalism to his book, Hell's Angels to his fantastic and outrageous novelistic screed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971)
to his wonderful manic articles on the 1972 presidential campaign to his 1974 Rolling Stone article on a speech that Jimmy Carter gave at a Law Day convocation at the University of Georgia. The latter article helped make Jimmy Carter nationally famous and paved the way towards his successful bid for the presidency. The second half of Thompson's career begins with a trip he was assigned to take to Zaire to cover the Rumble in the Jungle, a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. This became one of the most famous boxing matches of the 20th century. Foreman was heavily favored. Thompson was so convinced that Mohammed Ali would lose that he didn't bother to attend the fight. The film marks this failure as the turning point in Thompson's career, the beginning of a long decline. Thompson published occasional books and articles and a series of newspaper columns in the 1980s and 90s. Two volumes of his letters were published. Occasionally and sporadically Thompson seemed to recover some of the brilliant energy that characterized his best work. The film suggests that Thompson was swallowed up by celebrity, alcohol, and drugs and by his own inability to distinguish his invented persona Dr. Gonzo from his real self, the writer Hunter S. Thompson.

The film and various commentators celebrate Thompson's propensity tall tales, exaggerations, and outright lies. These are one of the most prominent elements in his best work. One of the most notorious examples is a rumor that Thompson started during the 1972 democratic primary campaign that Maine senator Edmund Muskie was addicted to a drug called Ibogaine. Thompson readily admitted to the fabrication, which may have done real damage to Muskie's campaign. Thompson favored McGovern and fiercely opposed everyone opposing him. Fabrication is a major component of Thompson's writing. He was, as one commentator notes, able to tell a larger than life truth while distorting or inventing his own version of reality. In the end, however, do we praise him for using an invented rumor to harm a candidate's campaign?

The film uses clips from other documentaries about Thompson's life and career and features Johnny Depp reading selections from Thompson's writing. Depp played Thompson's character in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and remained friends with the writer for the rest of his life. He helped pay for the funeral at which Thompson's ashes were shot up into the sky over his ranch near Aspen, Colorado. The film includes interviews with various writers and political figures and other people who knew Thompson. They comment on his life, his reportorial abilities, his wild exaggerations, his unusual personality. They attest to the fact that he was a true individual, but they really don't move us very far towards understanding exactly why Hunter S. Thompson was like he was. (One commentator suggests that growing up in an impoverished family left him feeling excluded and mistreated). Some of my favorite commentators in the film are Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe, and Thompson's first wife, Sandy. Juan, Thompson's son, also appears. He suggests that the closest he ever got to his father was when Thompson taught him how to use guns. Thompson was obsessed with guns.

This is an entertaining and informative portrait of Hunter S. Thompson's life. It's a sad film given that the last 25 years of Thompson's life were a long period of decline. One commentator suggests that Thompson's suicide was a kind of victory, an assertion of his right to end his life on his own terms. But his first wife Sandy suggests that his suicide was a failure. She points out that, given the current state of affairs, with the war in Iraq and George Bush as president, we need a writer like Hunter S. Thompson. I couldn't agree more.

No comments: