Hunter S. Thompson’s prose was nervy and pugnacious, his judgments bullying and hyperbolic, his life as volatile as any in postwar American letters. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t be any more different in mien and spirit. A couple of passages aside, it is almost perversely straightforward in light of its unstable subject, a chronological march through the heavy ’60s, the downer ’70s and the post-Reagan blur with a dutiful assemblage of talking heads and archival footage. The historical and cultural insights are all textbook, the music choices Gump-esque (if I hear Jefferson Airplane playing over images of Summer of Love San Francisco one more time…). What saves the movie is the man himself.
As a documentary subject, Hunter S. Thompson is can’t-miss, partly because he cultivated his persona for maximum shock and awe. Alex Gibney’s film evinces palpable affection for the man and gives his words and visage plenty of screen time. The roster of interviewees is impressive: in addition to Thompson’s two wives and only son, Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan (!), Jimmy Buffett (!!), and Jann Wenner, among other luminaries, pay tribute to the self-styled creator of “gonzo journalism.” Lest that motley cast suggest otherwise, the talking-head choices are actually apt (Thompson admired Buchanan as a writer; he was good friends with Buffett), as each brings a shard of truth from divergent perspectives.