"The edge . . . there is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over." Hunter S. Thompson--the father of "gonzo" journalism--knew the edge intimately, not only going over it, but mapping it for those too timid to see for themselves. Alex Gibney's new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson may not be the definitive doc for which Thompson's fans may be hoping, but it is a worthy contribution to the ongoing popular legend of a distinctive American personality.
Gibney focuses on Thompson's most productive and well-known period, when he wrote Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, a ridealong that boldly exposed the biker gang; Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of political reportage and opinion, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, an accounting of drug-addled lost weekends, and the perceptions they engendered about Thompson and his all-American surroundings.
Though much of the material is familiar, Gibney goes into detail on some half-forgotten chapters of Thompson's life, like his failed bid to become Aspen's sheriff. He interviews an impressive cross-section of Thompson's friends and family: Ralph Steadman, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jann Wenner, Gary Hart, Sonny Barger of the Hell's Angels, Thompson's ex-wife Sondi Wright, his widow Anita, and his son Juan. Thompson's close friend of recent years, Johnny Depp, narrates Thompson's words, and we spend considerable time drfiting around Owl Ranch outside Aspen and soaking in the atmosphere (including a note reading "Never call 911!"). The most striking bit of footage, however, may be the unearthed Thompson appearance on To Tell the Truth, pitting budding iconoclast Thompson against the archetypal panel of squares.
Gibney's account affectionately captures what made Thompson important as a writer and magnetic as a person, without whitewashing his troublesome qualities (his entertaining but at times unethical blurring of reportage and fiction, his spontaneous and bull-headed choice to go swimming in a hotel pool instead of attending the Foreman-Ali fight he'd been sent to cover in Zaire). Gibney's authorial stamp comes in the comparison of Thompson's popular days as a social critic with the times we're in now. Though Gibney skimps a bit in covering the later years, he reminds us that Thompson never stopped speaking truth to power, instantly recognizing (and, essentially "blogging" about, on the day) 9/11 for its game-changing nature. Thompson, who took his own life in 2005, considered the Bush-Cheney administration an "evil" that eclipsed the mere crimes of Nixon.