When Hunter S Thompson shot himself in 2005, America lost a distinctive voice. Best know as a substance-abusing anarchic sonafabitch in pursuit of the American Dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he was dubiously channeled by Johnny Depp, a long-standing friend, Hunter’s reputation as a pioneering skeptical journalist, star reporter of Rolling Stone, inventor of the Gonzo style, had long since drifted into obscurity.
One of the good things about this documentary by Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney is how it restores Dr Gonzo to some semblance of seriousness. He was very much more than the Ralph Steadman caricature, a sort of drug-addled holy fool. At one point in the 1970’s, at the peak of his powers, Thompson was a formidable influence on the political landscape of America.
A mixture of talking heads, home videos, TV clips, film clips, recycled documentaries all pulled together with a Johnny Depp narration (sadly only ever reading from the books and never commenting on his own experiences with the man), the talking heads in particular are impressive. It’s a slight surprise when you see Republican Pat Buchanan speaking some warmly about him, and the former president Jimmy Carter not quite bringing himself to admit that it was Hunter’s early unequivocal support for him, when he was just a not very famous governor of Georgia, that later helped him clinch the 1977 election.
This is a feelgood documentary which avoids the darker part of Thompson’s psyche. It skimps on the details of his suicide. It says nothing about his early years. No doubt through issues of space it neglects a good deal of his writing, and skimps the quarrels with his friends. So you get many sequences from an interview with Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, climaxing as he rubs a tear from his eye, but you hear nothing of his fall-outs with Thompson after 1975. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a New York media mogul should be treated with kid gloves; Graydon Carter is the producer here, after all.
History may well show that Thompson’s most important work was his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial ’72, in which he fearlessly exposed both the Washington political establishment and the journalistic cabal that supports it. Gonzo is especially good on this, while at the same time never quite getting to the heart of what Thompson believed politically; the overweening sense is that he simply hated being lied to, and whoever was in the establishment would have received his ire.
There have been several documentaries about Thompson, one of them even cannibalized here, but this is far and away the best of them. That said, those seeking a serious analysis of Thompson’s work will not find it in Gonzo. But what it lacks in seriousness it more than makes up with an enthusiastic, appealing bundle aimed at a younger generation. He may have spent his life attacking the American Dream, but in many ways, and here’s the irony, he actually lived it.
‘Politics is the art of controlling your environment’, he once wrote. He made an art out of politics, and his life became a work of art.
**** out of five
Gonzo receives its UK release on 19th December 2008