The Hatchet goes to the Sundance Film Festival: “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”

PARK CITY, Utah – My favorite author ever to type a letter is the absurd, obsessed Hunter S. Thompson. He lived and died by his own rules, but he will be remembered for his fantastical prose that would make Salvador Dali’s brush smile. When I heard there would be a movie about him at Sundance, I sought it out regardless of the consequences.

I sat in line for more than three hours (most of them alone) with a cigarette extender and cigarette jockeying up and down my mouth while completely in Thompson’s character. I mumbled incoherently, shouted things (“Swine!”) at staring passersby and made a general fool of myself. My anticipation for the film turned into an imitation of Thompson, who was adorned with the cigarette extender before I was even born.

In order for Hunter to be brought back to life following his tragic suicide in 2005, filmmaker Alex Gibney drew upon many famous interviews for this documentary. Gibney is responsible for writing, directing and producing “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”, so when I saw his name attached, I instantly approved. Maybe I thought too soon. What I loved about “Gonzo” was its tracing of Hunter’s life. In so many words it showed how Hunter became Hunter and the man behind the character. From his Kentucky upbringing to his (short) military career and journalistic start, Gibney stays true. Thompson was nothing if not a poet, and Gibney gets that across loud and clear. He was also a die-hard Democrat who captured the youth of the 1972 election by exposing politicians for what they were (and still are) – madmen. In all of the stories (and sometimes ramblings) of Thompson, none beats that against his nemesis, Richard Nixon, whom he proclaimed, “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time.”

“Gonzo” is a film for a person who knows very little about Dr. Thompson. Perhaps it should have been titled, “Thompson: An Introduction.” If you know, for instance, that he obtained his doctorate from a mail-order certificate via Universal Life Church, then you know everything this film has to offer. I cannot fault Gibney for wanting to bring life back to a legend, but I expected more unseen footage. A Starz documentary on Thompson titled, “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride” (Starz Entertainment Group, 2006) had shown me nearly all of this material before.

For the most part, Gibney gives Hunter the screen. He does not use this documentary like “Enron,” since there is no one to blame for the madness on the screen. He halfheartedly blames the Bush Administration’s 2004 victory for Hunter’s suicide, but it cannot be that easy. That is the stuff of legends. No blubbering cowboy could take down ol’ Raoul Duke. His ex-wife, Anita, points the finger away from ol’ Bushy, and to his ailing ability to write. Whatever the cause, he will be missed.

Of course I was happy with the film as a whole – I would even watch it again. I am also a huge fan of the man who brought us Gonzo Journalism, (journalism through the eye of the journalist) as you can probably tell. Whatever Gibney’s motivation, it is nice to see people are still thinking of him, especially so close to an election he no doubt would have been all over.

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