Do we break it to you now that the great literary sacred cow Hunter S. Thompson was kind of a selfish asshole, idiot manchild or do we wait til the end of the review? But then again he was a brilliant, seminal writer and an important dissenting voice in America culture. Ah, the contradictions, they're what make life fascinating and beautiful. And while these paradoxes are on display in "Gonzo: The Life And Death Of Hunter S. Thompson," Alex Gibney's artless documentary does little to contextualize them and simply acknowledges their existence. This stand alone lack of editorializing sounds like the most objective approach. But in this already fawning eulogy, it doesn't work.
Somewhere in the middle of 'Gonzo,' Hunter Thompson is shown deep arguing with the original director of "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" Alex Cox, in vehemently disagreeing with his cartoonish aesthetic intentions for the feature-film adaptation. The irony is obviously completely lost on the director whose different — yet no less hamfisted — aesthetics deliver their own set of problems to the Hunter Thompson mythos (Cox was eventually thrown off the project, we could only be so lucky).
A gun-toting lunatic of true principal (to a fault) Mr. Raoul Duke did make some venerable moves that should be admired, mind you (other than writing a few masterpieces of modern literature and his estimable dedication to savaging venal administrations - "a nation of bullies and bastards"). He turned on his Hells Angels buddies when he saw them for the true barbarians they were. And he turned on 1972 Democratic front runner George McGovern - a candidate he had tirelessly championed - when he saw his campaign make some painful blunders and errors in judgment. Most would remain loyal in these cases, to both party and ally, but the only allegiance Thompson ever rightly felt beholden to were the veracities of truth and principal. If you crossed those lines, even best friends could get thrown under the bus.
The good Doctor made gaffes and pulled some boners too. And Gibney spends far too much time lionizing Thompson's foolishly misguided run for Sheriff in Aspen, Colorado that gained some traction with the aimless, hippie freanik movement at the time, but would have served to bring nothing but chaos and headlines. Thompson's mishandling of the legendary Ali vs. Foreman's "Rumble In The Jungle" match (Thompson snorted rails and went swimming rather than attend the momentous sporting event) was pretty much the nail in the coffin.
Let's leave Thompson out of this for a second, he was brilliant in many respects and had moments of sheer genius (a word that shouldn't be used often). Gibney's inelegant approach by filmmaking standards is way too on-the-nose and cloying. If we were to harshly judge every film on their use of music, we'd be doomed given our raison d'être, so we always try and look the other way, and yes, the man was a counterculture maverick icon, but do we really need to hear every super obvious, super overused cuts by Jimmi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, et al? And more so, do they have to be so clumsy and ungracefully? (when Thompson is shown shooting guns, Hendrix's "Hey Joe" is played, when Thompson boats in Miami, Jimmy Buffet's, wait for it... "Boat Drinks" is heard. Does the world need one more rebellious, revolutionary montage cut to Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower?" Ugh).
These painful music choices are emblematic of some of the unsubtle ways Gibney cares to convey his story and many are so aggravating, they rip you right out of the moment. The over-reliance on footage from Terry Gilliam's "Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas" is irritating. Johnny Depp's narration of Thompson's words falls flat. The over-amplification of the counterculture and times' are a changin' idealizing is annoying (dude, we get it). And the pacing is super odd too. Not only is the film far too long (and spends way too much time overstating the point), Gibney spends ages on the Presidential election of 1972 and then quickly claims Thompson is chiefly responsible for getting Jimmy Carter elected with no qualifying evidence.
Only after an hour and half of blatant hagiography, does the celebrating doc deign to show the sad, tragic downward slope of HST; too much drink, goofballs, celebrity to the head, women and laurel-resting to produce any work of any real magnitude. His slow demise is miserable and would be melancholic if the good Doctor wasn't completely responsible (his garish funeral has sadly got to be one of the least dignified in U.S. history).
Ultimately swallowed by fame, the doc is essentially story of an angry young man with the fiercest of sword-pens turned rock n' roll writer, turned irrelevant old man of painfully squandered talents. But it raises uncomfortable questions: is the writer a buffoonish clown or is it just the filmmaker that inadvertently makes him out that way? Perhaps it's as flawed as its subject. As endlessly noted, Thompson was a true patriot and bred of the highest conviction and resolve. His idealism may be a romantic notion, but his relentlessly unwavering commitment to crisis, outrage and foxing out the "dishonest shitheads" in America was also his ultimate undoing and 'Gonzo' is just as much a cautionary tale (though perhaps one unbeknownst to the director), as it is an idolatry shoe-shine. At the very least it's a reminder that even the stalwart keepers of the flame need a day of rest now and then. But either way, Hunter deserved better than this. [C-]