To be honest, I didn’t know who Hunter S. Thompson was until after he killed himself. It was a miserable year in college. Bush had slithered his way into the White House for the second time and winter at Carleton seemed even more bitter than usual. Our anger had given way to numb depression as we shuffled about our lives. Not that I was alive then, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had lost something over the past 40 years. In the ’60s and ’70s, Hunter S. Thompson embodied the kind of restless anger the country needed during the Bush years. What happened? Along with our parents, somehow we became the generation of complacency. You can understand my surprise when my very same criticism was leveled at the audience not by Thompson, but by Pat Buchanan. Wait a second! Pat Buchanan is in a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson? Gonzo, a documentary by Alex Gibney, is full of surprises. If you are a fan, or even if you’re not, this one is not to be missed.
Far from the star-struck mythology that often follows other famous suicides (see: Kurt Cobain), I was pleased you actually get a sense of who Thompson was, and it wasn’t always flattering. The truth is, Thompson was kind of a douche. Through a mixture of interviews, stock footage, film clips, and reenactments, the film is a surprisingly earnest and deeply fascinating celebration of his life. In roughly chronological order the film proceeds through the events that shaped America, and Thompson along with it. It can be hard to lose yourself in a documentary the same way as a good film, but the seamless mash-up of material and tight pacing makes it easy.
Like Buchanan, the film features a number of high profile interviews ranging from Jimmy Carter to George McGovern to the co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone. I was struck by not only the extraordinary effort on the part of the filmmaker, but also the exceptional influence he must have had to bring together such an unusual cross-section of American culture 30-40 years after landmarks such as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
Even though the film sort of putters out towards the end, and could have trimmed some things down here and there, it is well worth your time. I think its greatest contribution is, without question, its immediacy. In the stock footage of RFK, you can hear Obama’s voice. In Nixon, you can feel the repugnant sleaze of the Bush years. In Thompson, however, was a voice we now need more than ever.
Want a good example of modern gonzo? Check out the Rolling Stone coverage of the Michael Jackson trial. It was angry, subjective, judgmental, and struck me as one of the most honest things I had ever read.
See also Max Ross’ The world is full of downers…which is maybe why Gonzo took so many uppers.