The folks at Magnolia Pictures were kind enough to send me a reviewer's copy of the new movie about Hunter S. Thompson before it came out earlier this month, but I only recently had a chance to watch it. I kept putting it off partly because I didn't know enough about Thompson's life to get excited about the film over other ways to spend my time, but I'm glad that I got around to watching it.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is part documentary, part tribute, and part lamentation on the state of the world. As a documentary, it put Thompson's life in the context of his times and honestly contrasts the larger-than-life myth of the man with the reality of his personal life. As a tribute, it uses a broad spectrum of interviews with friends, family members, business associates, and even foes to honor a life that was lived so fully, if not in line with what was expected of him. And as a lamentation on the state of the world, it puts the corruption and power struggles of early 1970s presidential politics next to the way things are done today, and notes that we've mostly gotten worse instead of better. (It certainly made me want to learn more about George McGovern's campaign and platform.)
I came away with a portrait of a man who was radically self-absorbed and self-indulgent, leaving a trail of broken relationships and lives in his wake. At the same time, he was clearly one of those rare people who can speak truth to power, actually have a positive impact, and have a great deal of fun while doing it. Of course, "fun" often meant consuming much drugs and alcohol, and while I can't endorse this lifestyle (nor does the film), it seemed to work as well for Dr. Thompson as it could for anyone.
Overall, the film was very well done and quite compelling, with only a few unnecessary ventures into the storytelling tactics of cheesy "true hollywood"-style shows. The narrative, peppered with voiceovers by Johnny Depp who played Thompson in the 1998 movie adapted from his book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", was a good mix of driving as fast as possible between all of the unbelievable things that its subject did in his life and stepping back to look at some of the recurring themes that fueled the legend.
It's clear that the more material that's created around Hunter S. Thompson's life now that he's dead, the more he will be absorbed into the mainstream of our cultural mythology. At the end of this film, the scenes from his funeral show the big names of entertainment and politics coming out to celebrate his life, but I suspect many of these people wouldn't have touched his approach to life with a 10 foot pole while he was alive, if it even remotely implied their endorsement. Thompson always seemed gearing up to declare that the whole ball of wax is screwed up beyond repair, ready to name names and make a scene until something got better, or at least until he got the attention he wanted. Now that he's gone, he's a little more safe, a little more endearing, a little more like a friend that's been taken from us than the violent, rowdy, instigator of a counter-cultural icon that took his own life just when he darn well felt like it.
But this is the way of history, and one can only hope that by watching "Gonzo," once we've gotten past the parts of Thompson's life that are troubling or even repulsive to us, a part of us can find some kind of inspiration in his refusal to do anything except pursue the work and the life that he believed in, no matter the cost.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" is in theaters now.
(By the way, if I've ever encountered anyone remotely like Hunter S. Thompson from my generation, his name is Sander Hicks, and he's a playwright/journalist/song-writer/activist/instigator/entrepreneur living in New York City. I also think he's probably a little bit less crazy than Thompson, and probably owns fewer guns.)