'Gonzo' Thompson's life writ very large

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July 04, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is some paradoxical kind of great documentary. Writer-director and co-producer Alex Gibney uses any means at hand to make the rare movie about a journalist that actually takes us into a writer's head. He includes never-before-heard audiotapes of Thompson at work and play (often there was no difference), snippets of Johnny Depp playing Thompson in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and even Depp himself, reading from Thompson's work. Gibney has crafted an emotionally complete film from the story of a man who short-circuited his own odyssey when he shot himself in the head in 2005. He was 67 years old.

You don't need to be a Thompson fan to love Gonzo. It's both subjective and objective. It pulls you into the manic vortex of a man who damages his nerves, brain cells and muscle in his attempts to embody - and, perhaps, escape - the manic ups and downs of America in the Vietnam-Watergate epoch and the depressing downward spiral of the Bush years. But Gibney never asks you to buy his act. He only asks you to see him whole, warts and snorts and all.

Gonzo captures extreme thought and feeling with a rattled lucidity. It moves like no other nonfiction film. At the start, Gibney depicts Thompson typing furiously at his desk on Sept. 11, 2001, writing about a war "fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides."

This opening re-imagines Thompson at his angry prime, as he was in 1972, not 2001. It's as if an intravenous tube is feeding the Zeitgeist into his veins, once again bringing him the news behind the news. The picture windows in front of him become a split screen contrasting zealots from the Middle East and zealots from the Bush administration. The tragic irony is that Thompson in 2001 was no longer contributing regularly to a periodical with clout but riffing as a blogger for ESPN's Web site.

"Prismatic" has become an overused adjective, but this movie is a literary-cinematic version of the glittering mirrored balls of Depression dime-a-dance joints. It enlivens the audience by reflecting, from every angle, the light that this literary madman shed on mood swings of his time.

As an American celebrity in the journalistic subdivision, Thompson follows the path of many shooting stars. (And I mean shooting: He was nutty for guns.) A troubled adolescence, youthful feelings of insecurity - they're as true for Thompson as they were for Steve McQueen. At age 14, he lost his father to a neuromuscular disease. And his mother couldn't stop Hunter from feeling inferior to the rich kids in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

When he began to see himself as a potentially great author, he typed and retyped F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to absorb American prose at its peak. His breakthrough came in 1965, when The Nation assigned him to write a major piece about the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. Gibney uses Hunter's experiences with these rowdies to dramatize the writer's urge to push himself to the edge of existence. When Thompson describes high-speed, near-death experiences in transcendental terms, he's as way-out as any David Lynch anti-hero in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.

The resulting book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, confirmed the writer's affinity for radical subject matter. Still, as Gonzo makes clear, this fervid example of participatory journalism wasn't the generation-defining milestone Thompson had in mind. He was still a civilized man. He had put himself in dire straits and stretched his reportorial style to its breaking point in order to capture the sensations of rough bikers. But when Gibney shows him on TV, debating with the Angels' Sonny Barger, he still looks sensitive and vulnerable.

He wasn't yet the shamanistic leader of Gonzo journalism, integrating hilarious put-ons and mind-blowing hallucinations into heightened first-person reportage. We see him become more Gonzo espousing the tenet of "Freak Power" as he runs for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., in 1970. (He lived on a spread he called Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, outside Aspen.) He chronicled that race for Rolling Stone, but it was a piece he wrote later that year, for Scanlan's Monthly, that gave birth to Gonzo as a form. His account of the Kentucky Derby said nothing about the race and everything about the spectators.

In Gonzo, after Thompson composes his signature books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (both 1972), his persona hardens into the pistol-packing, drug-zonked caricature who inspired the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury. In that typecasting of himself, Thompson again resembled Hollywood stars who let their myths swamp their lives.

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