"Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter." -- Revelations 1:19
Hunter S. Thompson said he always quoted the Bible in his writings -- the lengthy, disciplined-yet-crazy, meticulous-yet-mercurial, false-yet-true not-quite-journalism he crafted for Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and others -- not because of its prose or principles but because it was the only book guaranteed to be available in the hotel rooms where Thompson would drink, dope and dictate the stories that made him famous in the '60s and '70s. That sort of limited access to information seems unimaginable in this day and age, when you can plug a CAT-5 cable in at almost any hotel and access the Web. And Thompson made his name in a very different world than the one we live in; at the same time, it's not that different. The United States was mired in a long and seemingly unwinnable war; civil liberties were being curtailed in the name of preserving freedom; political primary campaigns were less about issues than personalities. Those things were going on in the '60s and '70s, and some could suggest they're going on now, and our past is woven into our present; when I was looking for something appropriate from Revelations to start this review, I could have looked on the Web ... but I still found a Bible in the bedside table at my hotel.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a new documentary about Thompson's life and legacy, written and directed by Alex Gibney. Gibney's previously looked at greed (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and war's madness (Taxi to the Dark Side) in prior documentaries that combined journalistic integrity with artistic expression. Looking at the life and work of another journalist who gave what read like track reports for the four horsemen of the apocalypse must have seemed like a natural idea. And while Gonzo incorporates recreations and impressionistic re-stagings (the film opens with a bald, pallid obvious stand-in for Thompson stabbing single fingers at an electric typewriter, then recreates a famed photo of an armed Thompson drawing down on a keyboard in the snow), it also lets Thompson's own work and own voice speak for themselves.
Gonzo also tackles the essential quandary of Thompson's work -- how an angry young man becomes an irrelevant old one, how the writing that made him a celebrity was then unmade as his celebrity got in the way, how living up to your public persona can devour the private person underneath. Many at Sundance complained that the film was too reliant on clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Where the Buffalo Roam. But I'd suggest that a smart film about Thompson had to include moments from those films, and extensively, just as Gonzo interviews British illustrator Ralph Steadman and talks about Garry Trudeau's co-opting of Thompson's persona for the 'Uncle Duke' character in Doonesbury; any discussion of Thompson's life has to, by extension, include all the reflections and refractions and recreations of it. Thompson was larger than life, and then his life got so large it was no life at all, and then he took his own life. Gonzo quotes Thompson, bitterly appraising himself just before his 2005 suicide: "I'm an idiot, I'm a fool, I know ... but I've been a good read, right?" We note the past tense; I've been, not I am; Thompson's first wife Sondi Wright explains about the last few years before the suicide that "He had known for quite some time that he wasn't a really good writer anymore. ..."
But if Gonzo isn't shy about discussing the fall of Thompson, neither is it timid when explaining his rise. Gibney's interviews skip around so swiftly to get a snapshot of Thompson's work they become a dizzying trip through American life: There's Sonny Barger, ex-figurehead of the Hell's Angels; there's Jimmy Carter, ex-President of the United States. We hear from Pat Buchanan in Washington and Tom Wolfe in white. They all knew Thompson -- as much, it's made clear, as anyone could -- and he knew them. Johnny Depp narrates; Jimmy Buffet shares tall tales. But Gonzo also, thankfully, doesn't just focus on Thompson's famous friends and infamous exploits; it also includes Thompson's writing, the what and the why of it, how he used falsehoods to expose falsehoods, how his irrational prose was the best possible device he could use to capture irrational times. And it also conveys how those times are still in some way with us, or how they never went away; split-screens contrast bombing in Vietnam with bombing in Iraq, executions in the streets of Saigon with torture in the rooms of Abu Ghraib.
If one thing wounds Gonzo, and makes it feel stale instead of new, it's the soundtrack. Gibney explained in an interview that Gonzo uses the music of Thompson's era -- and the music Thompson loved -- but the choices are so already familiar that they feel like muzak, not music. "Hey Joe," "Piece of My Heart," "American Pie," "All Along the Watchtower" -- these songs are already so over-used that they've lost their strength through numbing familiarity. I'm not saying that Gibney should have chosen modern music for the film -- that would probably be just as distancing -- but he (or, more correctly, his music supervisor) could have, and should have, picked some B-sides instead of the pieces used in the film: If you're trying to make a Baby Boom-era author relevant to a modern audience, the last thing you want to do is have the music in your film give off the (not so) subliminal suggestion that the topic under discussion is as meaningless and snarled in the past as the 'Time-Life Sounds of the '60s' music cues played over it.
And even that mis-step can't truly distract from how well Gozno conveys the contradictions and victories in Thompson's life and work. A bad reporter reports a rumor; a great writer, like Thompson, invents a rumor and incorporates it into his writing. No, Presidential candidate Ed Muskie was not, as Thompson suggested in print, addicted to a South American drug called Ibogaine -- but, then again, something had to explain Muskie's disintegration in the press and the polls, and if nothing truly could, why not make something up? And Thompson's not made out as a plaster saint, either; Gibney captures the great writer and the bad husband, how Thompson's hard-paved road of excess did not always lead to the palace of wisdom, especially in his later years. (People who take drugs to write usually find out, to their detriment, that you can just take the drugs and skip the writing, and that's what happened to Thompson.) Gonzo isn't pretty; neither are the life and the times it examines. But it does convey the way Thompson changed the press, and how the press changed Thompson, and what that paved the way for and what it ran over. Gonzo is as energetically flawed and rivetingly reckless as its subject, and somehow that seems exactly right.