We were somewhere around the '60s, on the edge of oblivion, when Hunter S. Thompson began to take hold.
Writing like a banshee, Thompson eviscerated American culture and its hijackers with head-trip prose springing from a genius mind, or else a consummate substance abuser exorcising demons through his fingertips. Plenty of those in Thompson's heyday: Vietnam and politicians orchestrating it, puppet voters repeating mistakes, and an American Dream dying on the vine.
Alex Gibney's superb documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson analyzes the knotty author, his seminal style and eras with uncanny clarity and appropriate brashness. This is must-see cinema for devotees of Thompson's hallucinatory fears and loathings from Las Vegas or on campaign trails.
Gibney, who won an Oscar for the rendition documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, fills Gonzo with testimonials to Thompson's impact from the likes of two Jimmys (Carter and Buffett), and people like Pat Buchanan and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner who were stung by his words or deeds. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reads from his best works to good effect.
The author's prescient column written on Sept. 11, 2001, declaring the end of peace in our time, establishes Gibney's argument that Thompson, for all his anarchic misbehavior, is the preeminent political author of his time. After setting up his journalistic credentials writing about Hell's Angels, Gonzo veers into the turbulence of Richard Nixon's America and the madman who made hindsight sense of it all.
Much of the film is dedicated to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972, when Nixon's re-election became the dragon Thompson felt compelled to slay. His dispatches from conventions and whistle stops became legend, as much for his pranks — starting a drug rumor about candidate Ed Muskie, for example — as his accuracy.
Gibney doesn't ignore the downfall, when Thompson's rock star status and steady flow of hangers-on bingeing at his Colorado farm kept him away from the typewriter. The 2000 election results left him depressed; "a drug-addled compound junkie" whose 2005 suicide should be a downbeat finale. Not with the send-off Gibney presents. We should all go out so gonzo.
Steve Persall can be reached at Persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.