Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr S Thompson

Format: Cinema

Release date: 19 December 2008

Venue: Cineworld Haymarket, Odeons Camden + Covent Garden (London)

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Alex Gibney

USA 2008

120 mins

You’ve probably seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you may have even read the book, but did you know that in 1970 Hunter S Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen on the platform that no drug worth taking should have to be paid for? How about that in 1972 he single-handedly dashed the presidential hopes of the candidate for the Democratic nomination, senator Ed Muskie, by starting a rumour that Muskie was addicted to the exotic Congolese drug ibogaine? The latest documentary from writer-director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) rewards the Gonzo initiate and uninitiated alike by presenting the events of Thompson’s life in linear order so as not to spoil any of the surprises for those new to his work, but with enough detail to keep even the biggest fan happy.

Gibney’s great advantage over Thompson’s other cinematic biographers is the unprecedented access he was given to Thompson’s estate. What he found was a fascinating collection of previously unseen home movies and unpublished material. It also doesn’t hurt that he managed to get Johnny Depp to reprise his role as Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only without the make-up, to read this material along with excerpts from Thompson’s major works. Gibney then couples Thompson’s home movies and Depp’s narration with archive footage and new interviews with Thompson’s wives, his bosses at Rolling Stone magazine and his high-ranking political subjects such as senator George McGovern and president Jimmy Carter. The picture of Thompson that emerges is a man who was happiest in the 60s, surfing the wave of the hippy movement, and whose suicide was not only contemplated, but also decided upon the moment that wave broke. A life member of the NRA, Thompson always planned to blow his head off with a shotgun, which he did in 2005. Everything prior to this was just a series of temporary reprieves while he used his typewriter in the service of people he thought might be able to revive his particular version of the American dream.

Drug-fuelled, partisan and irreverent was how Thompson’s gonzo style of journalism was most often described, and these qualities were represented at his elaborate funeral, which Depp paid for and Gibney shows here – the writer’s ashes were fired over Aspen from a rocket launcher mounted in a giant two-thumbed fist holding a peyote button. However, it’s easy to forget that beneath his wit, which Gibney demonstrates by the Cadillac trunk-load, Thompson saw his work as a means to an end. As far as he was concerned, this end wasn’t achieved, so suicide was a natural choice. Gibney, on the other two-thumbed hand, argues that if Thompson found himself lacking, he was just about the only one who did, and that by taking his own life, the good doctor deprived the world of a voice that was still powerful enough to bring about change for the better.

Alexander Pashby