Posted: 07/07/2008


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson


by Matt Wedge

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When judging a documentary, I tend to look at one important aspect: Did I learn something about the subject during the film that I didn’t know going in? On this simple Pass/Fail litmus test, Gonzo falls firmly on the Fail side.

Directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the film opens strongly enough, with several of Thompson’s friends offering up their beliefs about what led to his suicide in 2005. The prevailing consensus becomes that it was because he was no longer a good writer and he knew it. It’s a surprisingly blunt assessment that brings the audience to attention. Gibney then refutes this point by having a portion of Thompson’s September 11th column read by Johnny Depp. In just a few sentences, Thompson managed to capture the shock, horror and anger of that fateful morning before going on to lay out exactly how the Bush administration would respond and why the response would be a failure. While there was a four-year gap between the column and his suicide, the point is clearly made that when inspired, Thompson could still turn out important and thought-provoking work. It’s Gibney’s subtle way of challenging the notion that Thompson’s suicide was a “romantic” act. It’s a provocative and interesting point, and the last one that Gibney would make for most of the film.

The fact that he never fully illuminates the mass of contradictions that was Hunter Thompson could be forgiven, except that Gibney abandons his subject to go into an unnecessarily in-depth examination of the 1972 Presidential campaign. At first, this makes sense, given Thompson’s coverage of the campaign in his seminal Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. But soon, Gibney loses all sight of Thompson as he explores the numerous mistakes that George McGovern made on his way to being trounced by Richard Nixon. It’s a frustrating misstep, because this detour takes up a sizable chunk of the film’s two-hour running time and makes me wonder if instead of Thompson, Gibney really wanted to cover the times that he lived in.

Maybe the film’s failure to uncover any new dimensions isn’t completely Gibney’s fault. In Thompson, he chose a man who has had countless books and films made about him. Maybe there’s nothing left to learn. And while he raises an interesting idea late in the film that Thompson might have become trapped by his own fame and the outlandish antics that people had come to expect of him, it’s too little, too late.

This is not to say that Gonzo isn’t entertaining. There is plenty of archival footage and audio recordings of Thompson at his most bombastic that are both funny and frightening as they explore the two-headed beast the writer could become when agitated. Likewise, the on-camera reminiscences of friends (George McGovern, Ralph Steadman) and enemies (Pat Buchanan) provide anecdotes that are always amusing, but never particularly enlightening.

For people unfamiliar with Thompson or his work, this could be of interest. If it encourages someone who has never read any of his work to pick up one of his books, then it was a worthwhile film. But for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the man or his work, there’s nothing new to learn here.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic in Chicago.

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