Terry Gilliam captured slash-and-burn counterculture daredevil Hunter S. Thompson in his first-rate film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but little of the vehement political creature was evident. It’s this often overlooked side that makes Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson both an absorbing documentary and an apt follow-up to Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side. Focusing mainly on Thompson’s decade of maverick stardom, from 1965 to 1975, the film doesn’t starve for anecdotes about mescaline-laced sessions and confrontations with the Hell’s Angels, though its heady mix of excess and inquiry doesn’t really take off until the reptiles overrunning the Casino Strip go from projections of a substance-lubricated brain to manifestations of journalistic fury. Thompson’s legendary coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign is portrayed as his zenith as a gonzo agitator, and not surprisingly, that’s where the film finds fresh topicality in the time of Vietnam and Nixon (“How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President,” Thompson muses incredulously in archival footage). If Gibney often succumbs to easy period standbys in his recreations of the subject’s life—a filmmaker should be fined every time “American Pie” is trotted out for elegiac tugging—he is a lucid interviewer, getting barbed, surprising comments from Pat Buchanan (fondly remembering Thompson’s description of him as “Nixon’s Davey Crockett”), Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Tom Wolfe. Johnny Depp, who became friends with the notorious writer while preparing to portray him, reads pieces from Thompson’s most incendiary years, yet Gonzo for the most part steers clear of fanboy adulation: There’s never any doubt that the boundary-pushing approach that revolutionized the press also made him a prick of a husband and father and, later on, encased him in the shell of his own cultish persona. It’s this refusal to settle for Thompson’s druggy image that enlarges the film’s view of political disillusionment and connects it to our own era of fear and loathing.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.