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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
"This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
So goes the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, said in reference to cowboys and the American mythology, a tradition of tall tales involving drinking and guns and larger than life characters that I'm sure held no little fascination for Hunter S. Thompson. As a writer and a journalist, Thompson spent a lot of time chasing the American Dream in order to kick away the façade and show the truth. As a statement, that is partly fact and from what I'm starting to gather, partly legend. I say "so I'm starting to gather," because I have just finished watching the Alex Gibney documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, and I've walked away suspecting that even if what Gibney has printed isn't totally legend, then he's at least mostly beholden to or enamored of it.
Hunter S. Thompson was a revolutionary writer emerging in the 1960s covering the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang after spending time amongst their numbers. Searching for a new way to tell the same old stories, he eventually pushed the envelope on an infamous assignment covering the Kentucky Derby. Instead of writing about the horse race, Thompson wrote about the crowd and everything that went on around the track. Reader reaction was through the roof, and someone coined the term "gonzo" to describe Thompson's new style of writing. Eventually, Thompson would apply that same style to a personal memoir of excess, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and several major political campaigns. A notorious boozer and drug user, he spent most of the 1980s and '90s chasing his own tail, lost in his own mythology and trying to recover the lucidity and creativity of his earlier works. In 2005, at the age of 67 and after many decades of telling people he would do so, Hunter S. Thompson shot himself and died.
That paragraph summary, in its way, represents the balance Gibney gives to Thompson's life. About three quarters of Gonzo is given to the 1960s and 1970s, and barely a quarter given to the wilderness years. There's no doubt that those heady early decades comprise the more interesting period of Thompson's life, and also his most productive. The basic story of the man who rode with bikers, ran for sheriff in Aspen on a pro-drugs ticket, and is given credit for turning the tide for Democratic Presidential candidates George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 (both men are interviewed for the film) makes for some captivating storytelling. You can't help but be fascinated by a man who receives testimonies from individuals as far afield as singer Jimmy Buffett and conservative politician Pat Buchanan. Such was the dichotomy of Hunter S. Thompson.
Unfortunately, it's this dichotomy that Gibney largely avoids, and that avoidance is why Gonzo is ultimately a slickly made but hollow picture. If the documentary were solely about Thompson's work, it would be one thing to stay as far outside the man as Gibney does, but since he makes a pretense of creating a deeper portrait of the individual, his reluctance to probe into the darker matter of the Thompson personality construct is disappointing. I can only attribute it to some kind of hero worship, because in his other acclaimed documentaries--Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the haunting Taxi to the Dark Side among them--the director goes after the bad stuff with the tenacity of the righteous. In Gonzo, however, he presents a story about Thompson writing an article that alleged one of George McGovern's opponents was a drug user and showing the writer giggling with glee at the success of his own childish prank. We are supposed to find this funny, too, even when later Gibney makes clear how the America that Thompson saw crumbling under Richard Nixon is not much different than the one we have under George W. Bush. If so, then how is Hunter S. Thompson any better than Fox News or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? A lie is a lie, false reporting is false reporting, no matter the perpetrator.
Gonzo seems to relish kicking around in the more immature aspects of Thompson's life and work. Given how the audience I saw it with chortled at every shot of the author taking a toke of weed or snorting a line, I guess I can't argue with Gibney's instincts for what the fanbase wants. But isn't it beneath a filmmaker of this caliber to pander to such adolescent impulses? There is clearly a much darker stew bubbling behind Thompson's cartoonish behavior, but Gibney would prefer to stay away from that and just focus on the clown. It renders this cinematic portrait disingenuous. He wants to frolic in the same playground as the iconic bad boy, but he wants to leave the bad to someone else to interpret.
It's a poor choice, because without the evil to chase after, much like Hunter later in life, Gibney loses all of the skill and incisiveness that has made his other documentaries shine. Not only is Gonzo shallow, but it's poorly made. It's loud and garish, trying to be gonzo itself, but the visuals are tired and after about the tenth or so trite, on-the-nose music cue, the veneer begins to disintegrate. It just proves that, ultimately, you can't fake the kind of qualities that made Hunter S. Thompson unique, and if anything, Gonzo calls attention to how much the man faked it himself. Though the film struggles to blame the suffocation of fame and even a broken heart from a divorce on Thompson's declining powers, there are only so many photos one can see of the writer mugging for the camera with a cigarette, a gun, or a cigarette and a gun before it becomes clear that he was more responsible for this buffoonery than anyone.
And that's where you realize how false Gonzo really is: it tries to let Hunter S. Thompson off the hook. Gibney and the cult of Raul Duke are so in awe of the early accomplishments of their hero--and rightly so, based on the evidence here--they don't want to admit that the man's greatest mission was not to destroy the lie of the American Dream, but to destroy himself. Fame isn't going to dull a man's talent nearly as much as decades of pouring anesthetic on it will. How wrong is it that the only people to cry foul, to call the myth out on the carpet for its own fear and self-loathing, are Thompson's ex-wife and Pat Buchanan? That's right, Pat Buchanan could see Thompson clearly and still respect him; so why not acolytes like Gibney?
The director does his hero a disservice here, because he makes me less interested in his subject. Strangely, he makes me more interested in Jimmy Carter, who emerges in the film as the true rebel. Whereas Thompson was bold while largely speaking to the converted, the man the gonzo journalist discovered on the campaign trail was one whom was bold in speaking out to people who didn't want to hear it. Thompson seized on him as a candidate when Carter gave a speech about how lawyers were destroying the judicial system--to a room of southern lawyers. I suspect Thompson saw how truly rebellious that was, and this is why he ran around playing a tape recording of the speech to anyone who listened.
Had Alex Gibney done his job properly, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson would make me want to go out and buy a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; instead, I want to go rent Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains. That about sums up the whole sick truth, doesn't it?
Or should I say, the whole sick legend?
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
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