When filming a documentary about a writer so eccentric, talented, and gigantically presenced that a peer describes him as having had “the attributes of an action hero,” the risk is less that you’ll render him uninteresting than that you’ll end up with something chaotic. Not with Alex Gibney at the helm, however. The Oscar-winning director of last year’s Taxi to the Dark Side and 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—both docs that brilliantly distilled what felt like a Google’s worth of facts into digestible viewing—again plucked, jiggered, and wisely embellished to create Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a dense but enthralling biography that manages to keep its focus on the Rolling Stone journalist while exploring Gibney’s political obsession at the same time.
Gonzo begins not at but near the end of Thompson’s life—specifically, with a piece he wrote for ESPN’s Web site on Sept. 11, 2001. As a lookalike dramatizes Thompson at a typewriter—an approach that’s not as cheesy as it sounds—and a clip of the smoldering World Trade Center plays in a makeshift Woody Creek, Colo., living room, Johnny Depp reads parts of the prescient article in voice-over: “We’re going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens is hard to say.…This is going to be a very expensive war, and victory is not guaranteed—for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush.” “Hunter” and his desk are then shown facing a window, but the scenery isn’t tree-lined. Instead, there’s a very cool news mash-up, a collage of politicians and war footage flickering while “All Along the Watchtower” plays and propels the narrative back 40-odd years to Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic convention, Nixon’s presidency, and other events that helped birth the Dr. Thompson persona.
The film’s biggest misstep is that the soundtrack isn’t exactly original—“Piece of My Heart,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Sympathy for the Devil” play during ’60s and ’70s sequences as well. Otherwise, this two-hour soak in Thompson’s life and career is as gonzo as his famed writing style. With the help of commentators like Jann Wenner, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan, Jimmys Carter and Buffett, and Thompson’s family (first wife Sondi, son Juan, and second wife Anita), Gibney depicts the journalist’s ascent more or less chronologically, from the works that put him on the literary radar (a book on the Hell’s Angels and an article on the Kentucky Derby that was about everything but the race itself), to his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas heyday to his final pieces for ESPN.com before his 2005 suicide.
But Gibney takes some fun detours: He devotes time to Thompson’s nearly successful 1970 run to become the sheriff of Aspen, Colo., complete with a campaign commercial, film of press conferences, and, most amusingly, Thompson’s “tentative platform,” which included changing Aspen’s name to “Fat City” and effecting a law that “No drug worth taking should be sold for money.” All of Depp’s narration is Thompson’s own words; when there’s no archival footage, the director invents, such as in a passage from Hell’s Angels about the author’s midnight motorcycle rides that’s accompanied by a dark, blurred, exhilarating driver’s-perspective reimagining. And, naturally, Gibney includes clips from the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Depp himself played the doc, aka “Raoul Duke,” alongside Benicio del Toro, both hilarious as characters tripping their faces off. Artist and frequent Thompson collaborator Richard Steadman shows off his electrifying paintings of Thompson and the events they covered and is a hoot as he talks about the man who introduced him to hallucinogenics.
Gonzo always returns to the political world, however, which gives the film some unexpected weight. Politics could animate and depress Thompson, and in 1972, the failure of his supported presidential candidate, George McGovern, to unseat Richard Nixon and bring a swift end to the Vietnam War left him dejected. More detrimental to his mental health, however, was witnessing history repeat: “The nightmare we’re in today is essentially the same as the nightmare he described back then,” colleague Tim Crouse says. Anita Thompson is more direct: “I started worrying about him right after the Bush election. That was the trigger.”
Suddenly, Gonzo moves you to not only mourn an icon but feel the despair that finally led to the suicide he’d had always threatened. Like Gibney’s previous work, though, you walk away from the documentary melancholy yet informed, in a state that rustles your mind instead of sinks your soul. And ending with footage of Thompson’s memorial service—his ashes being shot out above a self-designed monument of his two-thumbed, peyote-holding emblem—is appropriately celebratory. An older Thompson characterizes himself this way: “I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. I know. But I’ve been a good read, right?”