Somewhere in the middle of “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” we hear the strains of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad to a Thin Man”:
“Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
The genius of maverick writer Thompson is that he was on top of what was “happening” in an explosive, revolutionary environment, defining it with a new type of subjective art he called Gonzo journalism.
Unable and unwilling to distance himself from his subjects, whether they were Hell’s Angels, Richard Nixon or George McGovern, Thompson often entered the ring with them, sparring with their images or exalting them into winners even before a contest was decided. In the process, he exacted the respect of figures like Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and Tom Wolfe.
Born in 1939 and coming of age during the turbulent 1960s, Thompson came along at the right time; an increasing number of Americans were ready for his approach, eagerly devouring his reports. He hung with Hell’s Angels until they discovered his methods and inflicted a severe beating, the upshot of which only catapulted him to the status of a folk hero. One of his acolytes was Johnny Depp, who narrates some of the movie. We also see him onscreen occasionally reading a passage from one of Hunter’s books.
’Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’
DIRECTED BY Alex Gibney
STARRING Johnny Depp, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Jann Wenner and Ralph Steadman
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
Alex Gibney’s absorbing documentary attempts to corral the essence of a wild stallion, a man of many contradictions who went on to write searing articles about the 1972 election, and penned “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” later adapted into an award-winning film. We see Thompson as a boozer, an acid freak who “shocked the squares” with his “mocking rage” fueled by “despair.”
A writer who says he found his style by transcribing passages from “The Great Gatsby,” he shot off prose in fits of exclamatory brilliance. Addressing the character of Richard Nixon, a man he loathed, Thompson wrote: “He speaks to the werewolf in us on nights when the moon comes too close.”
In one of his iconoclastic periods, he fabricated a story about presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, subsequently picked up by the overly eager mainstream press. Confronted by Geraldo Rivera on national TV, Thompson admits the account might have begun as a rumor, because for one thing, he initiated it. It’s one more example of Gonzo journalism — covering an event by combining facts with intuition.
Skillfully assembled and edited in splendid, arresting, nonlinear fashion, “Gonzo” explores what lurks in the psyche of this American original who ran for sheriff of Aspen and penned a scathing satire about the people who frequent the Kentucky Derby. (Like maverick Muhammad Ali, Thompson is a Kentucky native.)
What was going on in his head when he picked up one of his 23 guns and shot himself at 66?
We may infer that Hunter Thompson simply decided he had lived long enough because he had nothing more to say, even though he penned a beautiful piece of prose about the state of America and the rest of the world after 9/11. Perhaps he just concluded that after decades of dashed hopes, the writing was on the wall, and he might as well get out before the rest of us also saw the enveloping darkness and “horror” in a mad, mad world.
The value of this film directed by Alex Gibney, who gave us “The Boys from Enron” and the acclaimed “Taxi to the Dark Side,” is that it serves both as an introduction to the life and times of an influential American and as a way to reflect on the ways in which news is handled today. Perhaps viewers might conclude that the current political and cultural scene would profit by journalists respectful of but not enslaved to objectivity. In the pursuit of truth, we will always need a Hunter Thompson, but we may also conclude that one Thompson a generation is quite enough.