Journalism's wild one, loved and loathed

Posted: July 04, 2008

It's a fitting day, Independence Day, for the release of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Narcissism Day also would have been good.

The chain-smoking, pill-popping, shades-wearing journalist whose counterculture musings about the Kentucky Derby and the Hells Angels led to a couple of Fear and Loathing epics, was, if nothing else, wildly independent.

He was also, as Alex Gibney's absorbing documentary lays testament to, a self-obsessed nutjob who habitually recorded his rants and ramblings, shot himself on film and video and then, years into a booze-soaked burnout, literally shot himself - leaving behind detailed instructions on how friends and family should conduct his wake.

Enabled by Jann Wenner's feisty, fledgling Rolling Stone, Thompson, in the late '60s and early '70s, pioneered a type of journalism that jettisoned any pretense of objectivity - and thereby explored deeper, stranger truths. Ignoring deadlines and racking up expenses - and ingesting vast quantities of drugs and alcohol - Thompson filed reports from America's capital of gambling and vice (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and then turned his attention to the 1972 Nixon/McGovern presidential race (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail).

At its best, his writing was genius. At its worst - and it got worse as Thompson started buying into his own hype - it was belligerent and self-indulgent.

Gibney, who made Gonzo concurrently with this year's Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, gets all that. Incorporating gleaming chunks of Thompson's prose, intercutting bits from the author's audio and video archives, and splicing and dicing footage from Terry Gilliam's 1998 movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gonzo paints a rich portrait. Talking head interviews include: George McGovern (livelier now than he was in the '70s!), Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan (Nixon's speechwriter back then), Tom Wolfe, Wenner, Thompson's first and second wives, his son, and the illustrator Ralph Steadman, who gave the Fear and Loathing articles their trademark inkwell-in-an-earthquake visual style.

Johnny Depp, who portrayed Thompson's alter-ego in Gilliam's film, provides the narration. If there's hagiography here, it's counterbalanced by biographical truth: Lots of people come out to say that the good Doctor was not much fun to be around, especially in those end days, with his arsenal of guns and his bunker in the Colorado hills.

But Gibney also wants to honor what it was that made Thompson a celebrity in the first place: his brilliant, blotto writing, and his ability to smell out the liars and the hypocrites and expose them for the feral beasts that they were.


Gonzo: The Life and Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Alex Gibney. With Jimmy Buffett, Pat Buchanan, Johnny Depp, Gary Hart, George McGovern, Ralph Steadman, Anita Thompson, Juan Thompson, Sandy Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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