Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney is a master of the documentary genre. Able to expertly apply techniques more traditionally used in fiction to real-life historical events, he creates films that fully trace the life and times of their subjects while at the same time being engrossing and extremely entertaining.
Emblazing gigantic ‘subtitles’ across the screen typewriter-style while figures speak on the soundtrack, he creates an urgent sense that the speech being played back is occurring right in front of you. After the brilliant and illuminating Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room in 2005, and last year’s Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, his investigation into the death of an innocent Afghani taxi driver, Gibney turned his sights on Hunter S. Thompson, an outlaw, a notorious gun-toting drug addict, a one-time candidate for the office of Sherriff in Aspen, Colorado, and the author of numerous best-selling books and infamous magazine pieces in a style that necessarily involves the author’s first-hand point of view; it would come to be known as ‘gonzo’ journalism.
Narrated intermittently by Johnny Depp—who portrayed Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film version of the author’s most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the film chronicles the life of the author and journalist, examining his personal and professional life in equal detail. From the article that made him famous in the late-sixties—“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved,” an examination of the horse race that spends so much time commenting on the depraved behaviour of the crowd that it doesn’t even say which horse won—to his book on the notorious Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and his tumultuous political writing career in the early seventies when he sided with Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern and vehemently opposed the tactics and style of Richard Nixon, to his later writing and suicide in 2005, the film continuously builds momentum, never letting up—even at the end, as footage of Thompson planning his own funeral is interspersed with images of the actual event, an eerie sight to behold.
Gibney interviews members of Thompson’s family—discussions with his son Juan and first wife Anita are particularly interesting—as well as his friends, enemies and lovers, and people with whom he collaborated over the years, including his long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman, journalist and author Tom Wolfe, and Rolling Stone founding editor Jann Wenner. Gonzo is a tribute to the wild and crazy life of a journalist who knew no bounds, someone who cared less about ‘getting the story’ than about dissecting the social structure of the local community, and, of course, working out where to score his next hit.
The film’s soundtrack is infused with music from the era, and ranges from the expected (Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty; Jefferson Airplane; Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”) to the surprising, such as the use of the late, great Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Much like Thompson, Zevon had a tempestuous soul and his acerbic wit permeated his morbid lyrics. “I’m the innocent bystander / but somehow I got stuck / between a rock and a hard place … Send lawyers, guns and money / the shit has hit the fan…” he grunts loud and deep over the closing credits—a choice Hunter himself would have doubtless appreciated.