Monday, May 5, 2008

Review of "Gonzo" at the Maryland Film Festival

A progenitor of New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson prided himself on the complete lack of objectivity in his mostly brilliant and groundbreaking writing, and "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a two-hour documentary shown at the Maryland Film Festival Saturday, does pretty much the same thing—though it's far from brilliant.

Created by Alex Gibney, the writer and director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," the film does a more than adequate job of presenting often hilarious and insightful glimpses of Thompson's antics, from debate performances in his 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colo. to some priceless footage of the good doctor doing lines of coke behind a movie slate. But overall, "Gonzo" fails to look past the crazy, stoned stereotype of Thompson that's been beaten into the ground and—as Thompson himself opines throughout the film—often dominates depictions of him.

There is no mention whatsoever of Thompson's journalism career before he wrote "Hell's Angels," nothing about his first novel "The Rum Diary" or his time in Puerto Rico, nothing about his prior military service. There is also little attention given to his later, less glamorous years, though that may be for the best.

Instead, Gibney dedicates the largest portion of the film to the 1972 election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon—a major part of Thompson's life, no doubt, which produced "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," one of Thompson's best works. But when Gibney tells the story, it drifts from one about Thompson's writing to a lame, retrospective endorsement that tells the audience America would have been a better place if George McGovern had won that election. Gibney's film is unapologetically political. He splices footage of the war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon with the war in Iraq and George W. Bush in an attempt draw comparisons that are simplistic and not entirely accurate. Nixon didn't start the Vietnam war, for one.

Throughout many parts of the film, "Gonzo" seems more like a statement about "what's wrong" in our times than an exploration of Hunter Thompson the man. (Several 1972 campaign sequences leave out Thompson entirely.) And—unfortunately—that might have been what the audience at the Charles Theatre was looking for this weekend. When McGovern, the documentary's second hero behind Thompson, said in an interview for the film that old men in air-conditioned rooms need to stop sending young men to die in wars, the room erupted in sporadic applause.

This is not to say the film is bad. It isn't. It's really, really funny and has some great interviews with many necessary commentators in a Thompson piece, including McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe, Tim Crouse, Hell's Angel Sonny Barger, Jimmy Carter, and Thompson's two wives and son. Johnny Depp reads Thompson's writing throughout the film in an obvious but smart choice.

But "Gonzo" is by and large a film made for today, not for posterity. From the opening sequence in which Depp reads the foreshadowing and haunting column Hunter wrote on Sept. 11, 2001 to the end sequence in which Jimmy Buffet and other questionable political commentators say America needs Hunter's writing now more than ever, it's painfully obvious that Gibney wants the documentary to be a view of today through the lens of Hunter, and not a depiction of Hunter that could last for generations.

There are few bigger fans of Hunter Thompson than me, but even I have to admit that the guy had a serious drug problem, often lived outside the bounds of reality and—more than once—was dead wrong about politics (example: his strong endorsement of Jimmy Carter). The film does a disservice by not challenging Hunter at all. It doesn't bring him down to human size. It boosts his larger-than-life legend. That's not a bad thing, but it's been done before. And in more honest ways. If you really want a good look at Hunter, don't seek out this self-righteous movie, but rather the biography by Douglas Brinkley, who offers some of the film's best commentary.

But if you're looking for some laughs and a decent, albeit over ambitious, look at Thompson, "Gonzo" will appear in 25 American cities on July 4. It's worth checking out. I'd definitely see it again.

-Mike Meno

Mike Meno is a contributer to WYPR's The Signal and CO-FOUNDER of the Goucher Review.