Not Yet Rated

We can only speculate how the late journalist/gadfly/all-around provocateur Hunter S. Thompson would have wanted his life story told onscreen, but chances are his version would only bear a passing resemblance to Alex Gibney's Biography Channel-ready portrait, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. But then, Thompson—who famously originated the hyper-real style of journalism that this movie takes its title from—rarely concerned himself with giving readers a clear narrative throughline to latch onto. Gibney doesn't have that luxury; tasked with putting his subject's life into some kind of recognizable order for a mass audience that may or may not be familiar with such seminal yarns as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, the Oscar-winning filmmaker has to de-gonzo Gonzo. The result is a too-conventional documentary about an unconventional individual—a film that preserves Thompson's words verbatim but only occasionally taps into the restless spirit that fueled them.

Devoting scant screen time to the good doctor's formative and twilight years, Gibney sets the bulk of the documentary during Thompson's most productive period, which began in 1965 when the then-28-year-old Kentuckian burst onto the literary scene with a fly-on-the-wall expose of the infamous California biker gang The Hell's Angels. The success of that book landed the struggling journalist high-paying gigs with Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and, eventually, Rolling Stone. Thompson used the substantially larger paychecks to purchase land in Woody Creek, Colorado, which served as the base of his operations until the day he died. Soon after moving in, he staged one of his first gonzo stunts, running for the office of county sheriff against a much-admired (and very conservative) incumbent. He lost, of course, but not before establishing himself as a counterculture warrior, fighting the good fight against an army of squares.
Thompson spent the rest of his life trying to live up to this outsized image, a drug- and booze-fueled mission that led him from the Kentucky Derby, to the casinos of Las Vegas, to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. For a while, it seemed like everything that poured off his typewriter was journalistic gold. But the good times didn't last; as Gonzo's rushed final act tells us, Thompson fell into a personal and professional funk in the late '70s that he never really emerged from. Certainly the footage we're shown of late-career Hunter reveals a man who looks and sounds more like a grumpy grandpa than a fiery rebel. The film concludes with Thompson's 2005 suicide and star-studded funeral, where his ashes were blasted into the Colorado sky alongside a colorful fireworks display—a grand sendoff that the always forward-thinking writer had planned out in detail years earlier.

It's hard to accuse Gibney of not doing his homework. The director has assembled an impressive roster of Thompson's friends and family, including his son Juan, his first wife Sandy (the only person to offer any negative comments to balance out the hosannas), fellow authors Tom Wolfe and Tim Crouse and political pals George McGovern, Pat Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. He's also been granted access to the author's vast library of audio recordings and surreal home movies, which he supplements with lots of entertaining archival clips from the many news programs and talk shows Thompson appeared on over the years. Audiences who go into Gonzo knowing next to nothing about Hunter S. Thompson or gonzo journalism are at least assured of coming away with a general understanding of the man and his movement.

At the same time, it's hard to escape the feeling that Gibney is doing his subject a disservice by hewing so closely to the standard biographical documentary format. Thompson himself probably would have violently disagreed with some of the director's editorial choices, beginning with the cringe-inducing music cues on the classic-rock-heavy soundtrack. (The most egregious of these has to be the excerpts from Don McLean's "American Pie" that play over news footage of McGovern losing the presidency.) Gibney also takes an unnecessary detour during the McGovern section, going out of his way to link the Vietnam War to today's Iraq quagmire, as if that point hasn't already been made countless times before. Viewers interested in a more gonzo take on Thompson should track down Wayne Ewing's 2003 documentary Breakfast with Hunter, which, while less comprehensive than Gonzo, paints a clearer portrait of this complex, confounding individual.