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



Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- A biographical documentary doesn't get any better than this. In "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," director Alex Gibney smoothly brings together a strong visual strategy, astute talking heads, never-before-seen home movies, old interviews and archival footage both rare and familiar to pull off a three-dimensional portrait of a man who in life -- and most certainly death -- is extraordinarily hard to pin down. Gibney nails him.

For Thompson's readers and others intrigued by the mystique surrounding the man who invented "gonzo" journalism, this film will, of course, be a must-see. But the themes both Thompson's work and this film explore speak directly to America in 2008, a country in a quagmire of national self-doubt, the politics of rage and distrust, a baffled Administration and a war that has lost its purpose. In other words, all the things Thompson railed against when Nixon was his nemesis. So with careful marketing and a positive critical response, which the film should elicit, "Gonzo" may reach a much wider audience, both theatrically and on cable and DVD.

Thompson was a split personality. A man capable of enormous kindness and affection, he was also given to rage and chemical and alcohol-fueled depravity. He was acutely aware of these two sides but apparently not in complete control of either. It says something about the man's good side though that so many important people have come forward to pay heart-felt tribute to him in this film.

Gibney must be a great interviewer because the comments here not only from Thompson's two wives and close friends but such figures as Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett, Gary Hart and Thompson's long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman paint a picture that feels accurate and catches the moods of the country during Thompson's heyday as an author-cum-rock-star.

How fascinating to learn that Thompson taught himself how to write -- for want of a better phrase -- the literature of the outsider by typing over and over again F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." How odd to see him in vintage black-and-white on the quiz show "To Tell the Truth" after penning his first best-seller on the Hell's Angels. What a nervous guy he was then and how he changed.

Indeed Thompson fit right into the freak show of the '60s in the Bay Area, the acid-dropping, hippie-dippy, anti-war, clothes-optional guerrilla theater that caused him to turn-on but NOT to drop out. Rather he engaged the power structure in America in a way no one else has ever done. Without the usual journalistic concerns over burning sources and currying favor, he reported everything, whether on or off the record, but also made stuff up. And the phony facts somehow got as close the truth as the real ones. One interviewer remarks that his coverage of the McGovern campaign was the most accurate and least factual of any journalist's.

Having access to hundreds of Thompson's photos and 200 hours of audiotapes, home movies and other documentary footage allows Gibney to find just the right visuals to illustrate the narration, which Johnny Depp, the man who paid for Thompson's spectacular funeral, delivers in a tone of irreverent seriousness. From a treasure trove of the era's music, Gibney always hits on just the right song for the moment. And Steadman's plaint-splattered, grotesquely exaggerated but deadly accurate illustrations bring everything all back.

Fellow journalists/authors Tom Wolfe and Timothy Crouse and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner fill us in on the arc of Thompson's journalistic accomplishments, identifying key moments in his career and reactions to seminal works such as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72." His wives, Anita Thompson and ex-wife Sandy Thompson, and son Juan fill us in on living with a coke-snorting, bourbon-swilling wild man with virtually no acrimony, only a kind of amazement.

The crash and burn that led to the suicide everyone, including Thompson, knew would be his end happens in slow motion. He screwed up a major assignment. He gave in more and more to what McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart identifies as his "infantile" side. And, yes, the Bush re-election seriously depressed him.

He felt trapped in a character he had created, a character that Garry Trudeau has immortalized as "Duke" in his long-running comic strip, "Doonesbury." He loved his guns, he knew he was washed-up ... and yet a piece he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11, which opens the film, shows he still had it in him to offer up prescient, shrewd commentary.

Gibney -- currently Oscar nominated for "Taxi to the Dark Side" and exec producer of another nominee, "No End in Sight" -- is undoubtedly one of our key social and political documentarians. "Gonzo" continues this vital work.

Magnolia Pictures
HDNet Films
Director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Jason Kliot, Joana Vincente, Alison Ellwood, Eva Orner, Graydon Carter, Alex Gibney
Narration: Johnny Depp
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Music: David Schwartz
Editor: Alison Ellwood
Running time -- 121 minutes
No MPAA rating