Appropriate to its subject, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson begins not with the various accolades expected of a puff piece doc but with snatches of various talking heads speaking of his final years and frankly assessing that he'd lost his touch. Rather than play into conspiratorial fantasies surrounding Thompson's death -- something that would likely amuse Thompson were he still around -- Gibney and his interview subjects make clear without coming out and directly saying it that the writer knew he was past his prime and that the suicidal thoughts that plagued him his whole life finally won out, motivated partially by political angst but chiefly through the demons that tormented him for so long.
It's an unorthodox way to introduce a film about one of the more notable voices of the 20th century counterculture, but then Hunter was anything but orthodox. Gonzo charts the writer's life from his first success with his book on the Hell's Angels in 1966 through his suicide in 2005. His was a life of alcoholism, drug addiction, an enthusiasm for guns that would put even NRA members on edge and extreme mental disability that would have existed without his vices but was certainly enhanced by them. Through it all, he was funny, intelligent, piercing and capable of inserting himself in places that were determined to keep him out, as if even those aware of him simply did not know how to handle his zeal.
One of the main reasons Thompson and his legend attract me is the uncertainty with which I view him: was he a serious, if addled, journalist on the hunt for social answers, searching for the crater that marked the cosmic death of the American Dream? Or was he a prankster to shame Andy Kaufman, a committed freak who dedicated his entire life to pulling a grand joke on the Establishment he so hated? The answer, as far as I can tell, combines the two possibilities, and the great joy of reading his mad scribblings is sorting out what of his writing is incisive fact-finding and what is utter, hallucinated imagination. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern's campaign manager, speaking of Hunter regarding his coverage the 1972 presidential campaign, offered an assessment that covers Thompson's entire career: "Of all the correspondents, he was the least factual, but the most accurate."
Gibney is a keen political documentarian, maker of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, two of the sharpest documentaries of the last 10 years. But those films, as they concern issues and events, require a marshaling of facts, and this is a profile of an artist, and an artist who wrote and said what came to mind exactly as it came to mind. Unfortunately, Gibney uses the same approach to profile a man as he does to profile a situation, and Gonzo essentially plays out as a visual biography of a man who already left himself in his work.
It's amusing, certainly, to see the archival footage of the gonzo journalist running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado by appealing to Aspen's surprising hotbed of freaks and dropouts, crafting a campaign that made Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's run for mayor of San Francisco a decade later seem purely straight-faced. Even funnier is the sight of Thompson shaving his head completely bald, simply so he could refer to his Republican opponent, an ex-Army man with a disciplined crew cut, as "my long-haired opponent." But this is all contained in his short story about his run.
More unique are the contributions of people like Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone; Ralph Steadman, the sketch artist who adorned Thompson's writings with his horrifying caricatures; George McGovern, who reveals that Thompson's admiration for him was matched by his own appreciation of the writer; and Laila Nabulsi, HST's former girlfriend and the producer of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film. Thompson's writings were always from a first-person perspective, but it's necessary to have the clearer views of those sucked into his whirlpool to offer guidance.
At two hours, however, Gonzo suffers from padding, and too much of the film simply recounts his glory years in the form of mentioning books and essays. Even something as significant as the journalist's effect on swaying popular opinion for Jimmy Carter in '76 receives no in-depth analysis, only a cursory mention that, yes, Hunter wrote about Carter approvingly, or that he admired the outlaw spirit in the Hell's Angels when his book on the subject expounds upon that admiration to poetic length.
The timeline is loose as well. The driving arc of the film does not seem to go further than Thompson's '70s output, not even touching upon his writings on the Bush administration and only vaguely mentioning that he lost his touch without even providing a timeframe for that claim. Granted, I happen to agree that Thompson grew too much to embrace his persona instead of using it as a sly tool for getting across good, if broadly unethical, journalism, but his descent is spoken of only in abstract terms, never pointing to any articles as proof of slipping wit or any events in his life as significant of his downturn. The last 25-30 years of Thompson's life are shoved into the final 20 minutes of the film, and the portrait of a tragic artist I'd hoped to see to get a better understanding of HST's backslide into faded celebrity felt perfunctory and hollow.
What I did enjoy about the eulogy for Hunter was the talking head of his first wife, Sondi Wright, speaking of the perception of Thompson's suicide as the last noble act of a rebel, then shredding that horseshit into tatters. Though her bitterness over the failed marriage appears to have cooled, her anger toward the reception of her ex-husband's death is righteous and right-on: she undercuts the paranoid whispers that someone took Thompson out because he was at the top of his game and threatening to expose Bush by pointing out that he was over a decade past his prime. She conveys my own feelings on the matter perfectly when she says that, instead of admit defeat and create a faux-poetic death to eradicate the weakness of his final years, Hunter should have gotten his act together and gone after Bush with the same zeal with which he pursued Nixon. Why, just look at Pat Buchanan, brought in so one of Thompson's enemies can defend himself, and that smug, jackal grin on his face, the half-smile of an asshole who knows that Hunter was better than him but still lost in the end anyway. We needed a voice like Thompson's in the wake of the Bush/Kerry election, and while I know that Hunter wanted my generation to find its own calling, he left us to clean up this mess without any guidance just like everyone else did. But goddamn is this world a hell of a lot less interesting without him.