I’m Gonzo for Gonzo! Thompson Doc Made Me Wish I Knew the Guy

sarris I’m Gonzo for Gonzo! Thompson Doc Made Me Wish I Knew the GuyGonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
Running time 118 minutes
Written and
directed by Alex Gibney
Starring Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, narrated by Johnny Depp, gets so far inside the tortured soul of its subject through his writings, musings and media sightings that it is amazing how much of the outside world breaks in to illuminate the political and social convulsions Hunter both reported and embodied. Indeed, Gonzo turns out to be the most absorbing film, fiction or nonfiction, I have seen this year. Thompson was certainly no plaster saint. Aside from his manic consumption of drugs, liquor and many forms of hallucinogens, he was a proud member of the National Rifle Association and the possessor of more than a score of firearms, one of which he used to kill himself in 2005.

Still, Tom Wolfe, who coined the terms “radical chic” and “the Me decade,” called Hunter “our greatest comic writer.” Mr. Wolfe is one of 19 admiring A-list interviewees, ranging from former Nixon speechwriter and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan on the right to George McGovern on the left. Sandy Thompson (now Sondi Wright), his first wife, and Anita Thompson, his second wife, are both on hand with compassionate comments on the often outrageous, but never boring, man in their lives.

I must confess at this point that the journalistic legend that was Hunter Thompson never clicked for me. Too much fear and loathing in Las Vegas and everywhere else for my repressed taste. Yet I was moved in the film by young Hunter’s taking his admiration of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the extreme, copying down every word of those exquisite sentences so that he could learn to write. The crucial biographical subtext for Hunter was that he, in Kentucky, like Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minn., was on the outside looking in on all his rich classmates and their upper-class frolics, but whereas Fitzgerald pathetically pressed his nose against the window, Hunter resolved to blow up all these bastions of privilege.

What I didn’t know before I saw Gonzo was how much influence Hunter exerted in the 1972 nomination of George McGovern over Edmund Muskie, whom he loathed with such a strange passion that he spread a rumor that Muskie was taking an exotic Brazilian drug that supposedly explained his often bizarre behavior on the stump. If that isn’t a dirty trick worthy of Karl Rove, I don’t know what is. Less strange was Hunter’s post-Bobby Kennedy disgust with Hubert Humphrey and Mayor Daley’s broken-bones brokered 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, which led to the election of Richard Nixon. I have always been a lesser-evil type myself, and so I cannot empathize with Hunter’s unending and unyielding purity of purpose.

I was more on his side in his decisive efforts to place Jimmy Carter in the White House. I never knew Hunter, but after Mr. Gibney’s insightful melding of Hunter’s eloquent words with the heartfelt tributes of everyone who knew him—especially his son, Juan Thompson, and his two wives—I feel that I have learned enough about him to like him enormously, if only in retrospect.

There is a loony freeform look to the film that is fitting for the surreal spasms of the Nixon and Bush years. Mr. Gibney and all his collaborators have surpassed even Gibney’s much-honored Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side. Gonzo is a must-see for everyone.

asarris@observer.com