Last night I lucked into a screening of Alex Gibney's new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson. It's funny and raw as hell, as any documentary about Thompson has to be. It's also deeply marred by political agit prop, and a narrative that turns Thompson into a martyr for the soul-killing effects of right-wing politics.
That isn't a surprise dropped later into the documentary. Gibney starts off with a slow pan of Thompson's (well-preserved) office, across dictionaries, snapshots, and photos of Hemingway, Twain, and Faulkner. Talking heads (to whom we'll be introduced in a bit) claim that Thompson was in steep decline by the time he shot himself in 2005, but that he still had moments of brilliance. A Thompson lookalike sits at a typewriter and pounds out an ESPN column for September 11, 2001. And it's really not a great column. It's a catalogue of worries and "Bush is dumb" jibes; compared to, say, his obituary for Richard Nixon, it's thin and watery stuff. But the Thompson lookalike sits there and types, as green-screened shots of 9/11 and hideous warfare are superimposed on his window and sunglasses. It fills the viewer with dread, and the dread does not subside when Johnny Depp, his Errol Flynn mustache in a ratty stage of growth, reads Thompson's prose from a bar in his house, temporarily adorned by a copy of Hell's Angels and burning candles.
It gets better from there, for a while. Gibney's archival footage of Thompson starts with a 1965 game show appearance where, 26 years old, he nervously parries questions about his investigative saga of the biker gang. Gibney's interviews, photos and footage from this period—even his chintzy re-creations of scenes like the infamous gang bang—are gripping and revelatory. This Thompson is not a cartoon character. He's a paycheck-to-paycheck reporter and photographer who's dazzled by his fame and unusually insightful on the subculture he had lived in. Gibney intercuts footage of a few sensationalist, fedora-wearing TV journalists doing their own Hell's Angels stories; Thompson's insight looks that much greater.
The film slows down a bit as Thompson enters the 1960s California counterculture. Maybe there's a unique way to portray the 1960s besides footage of civil rights activists being hosed and hippies dancing soundtracked by "Get Together," but if there is, Gibney didn't find it. The section on Thompson's run for sheriff of Aspen is fantastic, mostly, once again, because of the original footage: Thompson's insane campaign ad (he rides a motorcycle as a narrator proclaims that he "understands the grass movement"), his debate with the incumbent (and talk of "freak power"), his election night party where he doffs a George Washington wig and American flag and tells supporters that "I proved what I set out to prove, that the American dream is fucked."
After that we're thrust into the "Fear and Loathing" era, and it's a disappointment. Gibney leans heavily on footage from the Johnny Depp and Bill Murray films that recreate scenes of Thompson tripping in Vegas and shooting his mojo wire. The 1972 presidential campaign is covered at length (George McGovern and his top staffers all speak), because Gibney sees this as Thompson's near-final bout of optimism about the stuff he was covering. As Depp reads one of Thompson's depressed screeds about Vietnam, Gibney splits the screen: On one half is imagery from southeast Asia, on the other is imagery from Iraq. On one half is Nixon, on one half is Bush. The message is sledgehammered into your cortex: Nothing changes! Everything's awful! Why didn't you rubes listen to Gonzo?
The sticker is that this… is not a bad movie. Not at all. Ignore the draggy middle and predictable "hey it's the 60s!" song choices ("Walk on the Wild Side" when Thompson runs for sheriff, the Jefferson Airplane's "Today" when hippies are partying on Haight Street) and there's an evocative movie here about a great journalist. There are moments of true insight, like when Gary Hart calls Thompson's politics "infantile." This is true, and it's important that Gibney packages all the McGovern-lovin' with Thompson's badly dated worship of Jimmy Carter. He was thrashing, angry, spiteful; he wanted not just to be left alone, but to see the enemies of his lifestyle "fucked and broken" by liberal optimists. Gibney succeeds in trapping Thompson; in his hands, that philosophy really seems doomed and childish.
When Thompson died, Matt Welch shot his ashes out of a (figurative) cannon here.