Sunday, March 30, 2008 , Updated 6:50 a.m., July 4, 2008
Movie review: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
I've only minor quibbles with this portrait of one of my heroes.
NOTE: this review first ran on March 30 when the film played at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. The movie opens today in regular release at the Magnolia in Dallas.
SUNDANCE ‘08 - Meet the Filmmaker: Alex Gibney
Gonzo came into the AFI Dallas International Film Festival -- and my eyeshot -- with high expectations and quite the pedigree. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and its director, Alex Gibney, is fresh off his Oscar win for Taxi to the Dark Side. (Around these parts, he's most remembered for Enron doc The Smartest Guys in the Room.)
By and large, this Hunter S. Thompson biodoc does not disappoint, despite what I saw as a rocky start. I really had only two gripes about the film, and one of those weaknesses glares in the early minutes. There's a particular style of biographical filmmaking that has been in vogue in recent years, involving the use of digital technology to frame archival (or pseudo-archival) material to illustrate narration of a tableau from the life of the subject that wasn't filmed. When it's done right, as in The Kid Stays in the Picture, the style is seamless and uses real photography to great effect. It's less effective when the style doesn't hold together as well or when it uses re-enactment footage.
Right off the bat, Gibney goes to a digitized wraparound of Thompson's Owl Creek lodge with a pseudo-Thompson typing while looking out on the world's news through his windows-cum-HDTVs. Granted, Thompson's "buy the ticket, take the ride" mentality calls out for some skewing of reality, but this was just too clean, too crisp, too HD. It felt to me like the entrance to the "Wonderful World of Hunter Thompson" ride at Disney World. I know HDNet produced the film, but a little less HD would have made the effect more palatable. At that point, I was scared for the film.
Fortunately, my early fear and loathing were not warranted. Gibney does an amazing job of letting the people who were there just tell the story. Great restraint is used in refraining from parading out a litany of celebrities to sound-bite. Johnny Depp, for instance, never speaks except to narrate. That's appropriate, given that he wasn't around for most of the good stuff, and wholly unexpected from a modern documentary.
Instead we hear extensively from friends, foes and family, with particularly meaningful bits from his first wife, Sondi Wright; their son, Juan; illustrator and partner-in-crime Ralph Steadman; various Hell's Angels; Pat Buchanan; Tom Wolfe; George McGovern; Jimmy Carter and Jann Wenner.
The film focuses most heavily on the heyday, bookended by Hell's Angels and the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle." While the focus on Thompson's most prolific period was apropos, I would have liked to see a little more about his formative years. His youth is covered in a few moments, and there's no mention at all of his Rum Diary period in San Juan. At a hefty-for-a-documentary running time of 118 minutes, though, the movie is packed and editing decisions had to be made.
I'm generally glad that Gibney decided for depth in the best stories versus an even survey-- With a wealth of archival video made available by the Thompson estate, there's room for even die-hard fans to learn more about the run for Aspen Sheriff, the hunt for the American Dream in Vegas and the year that Rolling Stone produced not one, but two of the best political books of all time. (While writing Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thompson was a big brother figure to editorial assistant Timothy Crouse who turned the experience into The Boys on the Bus.)
Family videos and news clips are supplemented liberally with material from Breakfast with Hunter, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Where the Buffalo Roam. (Look to the Terry Gilliam-led Fear and Loathing for the right way to use technology to paint a picture that doesn't feel too sterile.) More problematic for me were a couple "re-enactment" scenes, like one of a visit to a taco stand in Vegas, that wove together archival audio tape and actors. I can't help but seeing "dramatic reenactment" as the fine dividing line between Documentary and an A&E Network special.
The film does a good job of balancing Thompson's memory between besotted merry prankster and crusading partriotic journalist. Although the film clearly had the family's cooperation, it's also clear that punches were not pulled -- it's a complete portrait filled with the good, the bad, the ugly and the Gonzo. There's a particular reflection on the fallow years of Thompson's output, where his celebrity outpaced (much of) his writing. It's both a poignant portrait of a lost soul and a jolt for younguns like me that fell in love with Thompson's work during the fallow period.
A bit of inspiration
There's a bit of footage in the section on HST's run for Aspen Sheriff where he's exhorting the local hippies that they can't really do much to change things in Washington DC and that those things don't effect them as much as the things happening there in their hometown. I didn't get the exact quote, but it sounded straight out of the PegNews business plan.
The film also does a good job of contextualizing, helping show why a man who did his best work more than thirty years ago holds so much relevance and fascination today. Not only was he the patriarch of Gonzo journalism and its many derivatives (to which Our Little Business traces a bit of lineage) but he was the first "journalist as rock star," taking the narrator as core to the story to newfound extremes. As we see more and more debate over so-called objectivity in Journalism, valediction as "the least factual, but the most accurate," is an honor for the ages.
But the contextualization also brings forth my other quibble with the film. There is a spoken and suggested thread that today's political climate calls for a Hunter S. Thompson to afflict the comfortable much as he did during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement. Agreed. Gibney illustrates that point occasionally with what looks like b-reel from Taxi. Understandable, if not unexpected. However, late in the film there's an extended segment that splitscreens and beats us over the head with The Message: Vietnam = Iraq; Nixon=Bush; Then=Now.
The heavy-handedness here bothered me on a couple levels: One is that the comparisons just aren't that simplistic. Even Thompson makes that clear in his 9/11/2001 missive which is read early in the film. The other is that it understates Thompson's legacy. Granted, I'm an HST fan, but I felt like this analogy, so heavily lacquered, takes away from the universality of the piece, sacrificing a bit of permanence for topicality. Don't get me wrong -- my politics weren't offended by this tack, but my intelligence was. I may well have been in the minority, though, as these segments elicited applause from the sold-out crowd.
(Another note for fairness sake: Gibney, who was present for a brief talk at the beginning but had to leave for a shoot instead of hanging around for Q&A brought this theme up in his remarks, planting it in mind before the screening. But I still say there was no missing it even sans commentary.)
In the end, these are small tweaks on what was overall a wholly satisfying docu-biography on a complex and colorful guy. I went in knowing a lot about HST and left knowing more -- and was entertained throughout the entire ride. It's a fitting documentary and should do quite well in wider release.