Review: 'Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson'
Documentary about a journalist's drug-fueled exploits and equally wild prose tends toward the worshipful and neglects sadder aspects of his life.
Successful documentaries about writers are notoriously difficult to make because, most of the time, the artistry is not very photogenic or easily captured. In the case of the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, this difficulty is somewhat obviated by the outrageous, drug-fueled exploits of his life, which were often all of a piece with his prose. I am not, however, one of Thompson's idolators – his political reportage is nowhere near as great as, say, Norman Mailer's – but clearly Alex Gibney, the film's director, is a fan. We are treated to all manner of worshipy recollections from a stable of Thompson's admirers, including, believe it or not, Patrick Buchanan and James Baker. Who said gonzo politics doesn't make for strange bedfellows?
The worshipfulness obscures the sadder aspects of Thompson's life, which is perhaps why Gibney focuses on the writer's 1965-75 golden years. (Some of the home movies and audiotapes will be manna for the Thompson cult.) But what's missing even here is a fuller sense of Thompson the writer, as opposed to Thompson the Wild Turkey-swilling misfit. What Gibney doesn't recognize is that, in the end, it is the writing that makes the man – the antics will fade.
Interestingly, two other documentaries about writers are also making the rounds: "Trumbo," about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and "Chris & Don: A Love Story," which details the romantic decades-long partnership between the artist Don Bachardy and the much older Christopher Isherwood, the great writer and memoirist whose "Berlin Stories" were the basis for "Cabaret." "Trumbo" is grounded in dramatic recitations of Trumbo's outrageously provocative letters and so one gets a real taste for his temperament. In the heartfelt "Chris & Don," you pretty much have to take Isherwood's writerly stature on faith.
In some ways this is equally true of "Gonzo," where keeping the faith is a prerequisite for liking the movie. Grade: B- (Rated R for drug and sexual content, language, and some nudity.)