After winning this year's Best Documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side and being nominated for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney takes a break from investigating today's governmental and corporate corruption to revisit the wilder edges of 1960s/1970s-era countercultural idealism. His subject is wildman journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005 at age 67, created "gonzo" journalism with his 1972 magnum opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a manic, crazed recounting of his substance-abusing, gun-toting mental state while covering an assignment in Las Vegas. Creating alter egos for himself (Raoul Duke) and his traveling companion (Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan attorney), he wrote one of the absolutely crucial classics of the era.
In his life and public persona, Thompson subsequently lived up to the standards he set as the drug culture's Hemingway in all ways but one. (Thompson also was quite the heavy drinker and an extreme gun nut.) He stopped being an interesting and important writer somewhere in the mid-1970s, after his subsequent classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
But he remained such a celebrity that it didn't seem to matter much to his enduring fame. The literary passages in Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson are read by Johnny Depp, one of his many Hollywood friends. (Depp played him in a movie adaptation of Las Vegas.)
Gibney doesn't lie about that creative decline, but he doesn't dwell on it. Thank goodness, since it's pretty clear what happened to Thompson: He got lost in his persona.
Tom Wolfe, interviewed at length in the film and who also wrote about the counterculture at the same time as Thompson but stayed on the outside, has continued to do important writing, at least until I Am Charlotte Simmons.
This film is lively, if a bit long. It includes some family members but is more interested in Thompson the writer than the troubled family man. Gibney probes deeply into how Thompson got to the point where he wrote his gonzo books.
A lively and entertaining documentary filmmaker, he's helped by the availability of all sorts of fascinating old footage. Some of it is public but long forgotten -- a nervous and edgy Thompson on a TV talk show in the 1960s, defending his breakthrough Hell's Angels book against the complaints of a biker. Some of it seems to have come from personal stashes.
Gibney also has amassed quite an assortment of interview subjects, including conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who recalls getting Thompson a private interview with Richard Nixon during the 1968 primary. Thompson obeyed Buchanan's admonishment to avoid Vietnam -- he and Nixon talked sports. If only that had been videotaped!
You'll also get to see Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner fight back tears recalling Thompson, who more than likely drove him crazy with his many missed deadlines. Wenner commissioned Thompson's key Fear and Loathing work.
Actually, one can wonder if the politically oriented Gibney really wanted to make a documentary about the 1972 presidential campaign, especially Sen. George McGovern's improbable rise to be the Democrat Party's standard bearer. The section of the film dealing with Thompson's coverage of that campaign is its most lyrical and hilarious.
Thompson, held in awe not only by the other reporters but also by some of the politicians themselves, desperately wanted McGovern to get the nomination. So desperately he went way over the top in disparaging the opposition, famously opining -- ever-so-dryly tongue in cheek -- that McGovern's rival Sen. Edmund Muskie was addicted to a Brazilian drug called ibogaine. Not everyone got the joke; the straight press picked up the story. There's a clip of Thompson saying he wasn't claiming Muskie was addicted but merely reporting on a rumor ... that he started.
Drunk or sober, high or straight, Thompson often comes off as a crank. But strangely he never seems so at peace -- and peaceful -- than when he was running for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., in 1970.
Gibney fortunately covers this episode at length. Shaving his head so he could jokingly criticize a rival as "my long-haired opponent," Thompson promised to decriminalize marijuana and change Aspen's name to Fat City to scare off developers.
Helped by change-the-system volunteers and a get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at local hippies, Thompson finds himself a real contender. And he seems a true liberal idealist, a romantic out to make the world -- and his community -- a place where America's Vietnam Era fear and loathing could be banished.
We're fortunate he lost, given the books he subsequently had time to write. But who knows? Maybe he'd have been better off if he had won. Maybe he would have run for president ... on a ticket with Muskie. Grade: B
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