The destination? As close to the edge as possible, without slipping over. Sometimes.
Originally a struggling freelance journalist, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson changed his life after embedding himself in a Hells Angels battalion. The story, written for The Nation, took more than a year and ended in a flash as angry and fascinating as his first book. Thompson endured a savage stomping at the hand of the bikers.
The success of the Hells Angels story also opened the doors for Thompson to write for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and Pageant before settling into his next assignment. He embedded himself in the hippie counterculture of San Francisco. And although Thompson would later idealize the concept of what they were doing in the 1960s, he was somewhat disenchanted as any great potential for this counterculture became lost without political conviction or an artistic core in the 1970s.
"Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist." — Hunter S. Thompson.
Although Thompson lived just as hard and fast as the people he covered, he never inherited their apathy. After witnessing the clashes between police and protesters of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, an event that Sandra Conklin said made him cry, he delved into the political experience, running for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado.
Thompson lost, but the loss also paved the way for the birth of Gonzo journalism with his 1970 article, entitled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, and the two-part series for Rolling Stones that eventually became known as Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It was a wake-up call to America of sorts; the beginning of his impunity and hilarity over an American tragedy.
Although the story was told as an account of fictional journalist Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, it is the classically savage autobiographical essence of Thompson. For him, if the early years of the 1960s epitomized hope for the American Dream, then the early 1970s in Las Vegas represented the death of it.
Just as "The Vegas Book" was gaining even more attention, Rolling Stone put him in the center of American politics for his next series: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. And, in his pursuit of attempting to find the one honest politician, he primarily covered unsuccessful candidate Senator George McGovern. McGovern went on to beat Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, but not Nixon.
It was also in his coverage of the campaign that Thompson most notably locked in his reputation for goring sacred cows, even if it meant unapologetically twisting fact and fiction to the point where he report on rumors that he started. It was the peak of his career in that while he was hardly objective, he was always willing to ask tougher questions than many fellow journalists.
Alex Gibney does only a fair job with the extraordinary subject matter..
It is difficult to call Gonzo: The Life And Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson a definitive documentary because it falls short in never allowing the real magic of the man to bleed into the work. But that is not to say it falls entirely short. It does succeed in Gibney's flair for being a tireless researcher who works diligently to deliver on accuracy.
The result of his effort uncovers ample never-before-seen home movies, audiotapes, and passages of unpublished manuscripts. He also does a brilliant job in collecting commentary from the people who knew or were touched by Thompson. The one notable exception is actor Bill Murray, who was sorely missed in the documentary.
To his credit however, Oscar-winner Gibney — also known for documentaries such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer — does limit the decline of Thompson to the last 20 minutes of the two-hour outline. Ironically, it is only in the last 20 minutes where the film best connects to the subject.
Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Clips 2.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
As soon as Gibney hits on Thompson's struggle as a quest for notoriety versus becoming a prisoner of his own fame, it provides a better context for the entire film. Up until that point, most people hang on a thesis floated early on — that the story is a contrast between the kind Thompson and cruel Thompson. It is a struggle, but the comparison would be between the influential Thompson and the mockable Thompson.
Watch the film with that perspective and you might enjoy it more fully. Although in circulation for a few years, Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was recently featured on iTunes. It made the review cut more for the subject than the filmmaking. And yet, we suspect this work will likely be used one day as the field notes for the real thing.
For a less abridged version of the man, check out the audio collection on The Gonzo Tapes. You can also find Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson at Amazon. The DVD is also sold at Barnes & Noble.