I was halfway through Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson when boredom began to take hold. If you recognize that line as a Hunter S. Thompson reference, you may want to skip Gonzo, the new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and last year’s, Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.)
I was halfway through Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson when boredom began to take hold.
If you recognize that line as a Hunter S. Thompson reference, you may want to skip Gonzo, the new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and last year’s, Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.)
You’ve heard all the stories before. Thompson’s yearlong descent into the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, the coining of the term “gonzo” journalism, his heralded work at Rolling Stone magazine and finally the drug-addled and increasingly manic behavior that led to his suicide in 2005.
The stories are intriguing, and the film is shot with expertise and a helpful wealth of biographical information, but after hearing extensively about his greatness and madness in magazines, books and even other documentaries, the legend of Hunter S. Thompson starts to become as banal as his arch-enemy Richard Nixon’s sex life.
So while the opening line of this review is a joke, unlike some of Thompson’s writing, it is also very accurate. If you have more than a passing knowledge of Thompson’s life, then don’t expect too much from this film.
If you know nothing about the legendary writer and inebriate, then it may do you some good to check out the film as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson 101. If anything, the knowledge you gain will certainly help when people bring up his name at parties.
Throughout the film, Gibney and his crew give us the usual photo montages, grainy home movies, archival footage and talking heads that we have come to expect from modern biographical documentaries. It’s all very sleek and professional and impressive in the way that the film doesn’t pander to the audience by giving us recollection after recollection by Thompson’s big-time Hollywood pals.
We do get well-known figures telling us their stories of Thompson, like Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, Pat Buchanan and even Jimmy Carter, but we also get remembrances by his former wife and his widow, his son and others that were closer to him than his celebrity hangers-on ever could have been.
The access that the filmmakers obviously had to archival footage, his writings, home videos and other media could have really given them the fuel to let go and truly examine the life of Thompson. Was he really insane? Did he ever, at the end of the night, truly regret living his life as a drug addict? What were his creative processes?
For a filmmaker that took such a critical look at executives in Enron, you would think Gibney would have gone further into what made up the mystique of Thompson. Instead, what we have is a good-looking, overly-long, PBS-style biography.
That’s not to say that there aren’t transcendent moments in the film. While some, including Thompson’s son Juan, seem to glamorize his suicide (he was in the next room when Thompson shot himself and calls it a “warm family moment”), Thompson’s first wife, Sondi Wright, sums up her ex-husband’s death in the most logical manner: It was the selfish act of a man ravaged by years of drug abuse.
The film does Thompson justice by retelling the high points of his life in straightforward ways with only a few unnecessary flourishes and laughably bad reenactments, but the question remains: Are the filmmakers afraid of stepping on his legend?
Thompson was a complex, talented and troubled man. Surely there is a lesson to be had from looking at his life, the good moments and the bad.
Why not really let loose and examine the last few decades of his life, when he fell into his public persona, disappeared to his Woody Creek, Colo. home with his guns and his drugs and took to writing sporadic, funny but irrelevant works?
A once great artist, lost in a sea of drugs and violence, trying hard to regain that special literary magic that he once had.
Now there is a story that I want to see.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson**1/2Playing now at Cinema 21