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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter Thompson

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter Thompson.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter Thompson.

By Robert W. Butler, The Kansas City Star

Hunter S. Thompson was a hard man to pin down.

His friends swore by him.

But Thompson had an undeniable dark side. His abuse of drugs and drink could turn ugly. He lived like a hermit, had a cruel and confrontational streak and a world-class gun fetish.

And he was often bitter, feeling he didn’t get the respect — or the compensation — he was due.

Still, it’s easy to like Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the new documentary from Oscar winner (for Taxi to the Dark Side) Alex Gibney.

Gonzo paints a rich portrait of an outsider who — for better or for worse — in the ’60s and ’70s left an indelible mark on American journalism and then slipped into a long period of creative decline that ended in 2005 with suicide.

Thompson pioneered a form of reporting he called ”gonzo,” which emphasized the writer’s attitude over everything else. While other reporters on the campaign trail were constrained by rules of fairness and taste, Thompson felt a narcissistic obligation to call a hack a hack. As he once observed, his writing may not have been factual but it was accurate.

Over the two hours of Gonzo Gibney follows the development of Thompson’s flamboyant style (the ”Dr.” is for his mail-order divinity degree). His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was typical — assigned to write about a road race in the desert he instead chronicled his personal descent into hallucinogen-stoked psychosis.

But almost as soon as his career peaked, it crashed. The last 20 years of Thompson’s life were creatively barren. He was known more for his heavy-partying alter ego, Raoul Duke (Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip), than for his work.

Gibney’s film employs tons of archival materials and interviews with Thompson’s friends, admirers and wives to paint a portrait of a man who became trapped in the caricature he created.

The film is surprisingly cinematic, recycling clips from the Hollywood films Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing . . . (starring, respectively, Bill Murray and Johnny Depp). Thompson’s frequent TV appearances are covered (he was even a guest on the game show What’s My Line?).

But what is oddly moving about Gonzo is the testimony from well-known folk like George McGovern, Gary Hart and even right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan, who clearly admired and respected Thompson.

Thompson’s Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse (The Boys on the Bus) sums up his mystique quite nicely: “He was the right man in the right place, and he was equipped to capture a certain moment of history as nobody else was equipped to do. . . . In his best pages he captured certain truths about human perversity that will never lose their sting.”

With: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Pat Buchanan, Timothy Crouse, Jan Wenner

Writer-director: Alex Gibney

Producers: Graydon Carter, Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot, Eva Orner, Joana Vicente

A Magnolia Pictures release. Drug and sexual content, nudity and profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. In Miami-Dade only: South Beach.