July 9, 2008

REVIEW: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (B)

Background: I was a little shocked to hear that filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) was back with another film already, only months after his Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature in February. Either way, I was hooked in for Gonzo: The Life and Work of Mr. Hunter S. Thompson based on Gibney's track record, light buzz, and a resounding review from Mr. Nick Plowman. Not having read any of Thompson's actual books (only some online pieces), I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about both the man behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the cultural icon Thompson has become since his suicide three years ago.

Synopsis : Gibney sets up to the documentary as a kind of eulogy to Thompson, also known by his pen name/nickname/alternate persona "Gonzo". His former friends and adversaries, from Pat Buchanan to Jimmy Buffett, share the good ol' times with us while Thompson's biographers and colleagues gush about his writing career and cultural influence. About the only people who tell us anything personal about the man himself are Thompson's two former wives. Filling in the gaps is Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) reading from Thompson's books. Providing the rhythm for the film are your favorite songs from the 60's and 70's - in addition to repetitive clips of Thompson shootin' off guns in his backyard.

I Loved:
+ The footage of Thompson in his later years, vulnerable for what appeared to be the first time in his life.

I Liked:
+ The inclusion of this ESPN.com post by Thompson, which I had completely forgotten about. Pretty wild stuff.
+ The multimedia sources used by Gibney - interviews, archival footage, archival audio recordings, film footage, text, etc.
+ The funeral montage.

I Disliked:
- Not hearing enough reflection from Thompson in the years immediately before his suicide. Obviously he's unavailable for an interview, but it seemed like there was enough footage and written material to get some insights into what he was processing after the 2000 election.
- The predictability of the soundtrack.
- When the film turned into a pretty bland report on the details of the 1972 Presidential election. I think this was the low point as Thompson wasn't even mentioned for minutes at a time.

I Hated:
- The sequence in which Gibney repetitively cuts back and forth between Nixon and Bush II. This was a cheap jab and added little to our understanding of Thompson. Besides, I think I'm just about over people playing the blame game and whining about Bush. He was elected by the public twice, and he's almost gone. Finger pointing and name calling doesn't really solve anything (and as a matter of fact, I think that's what my problem is with Thompson in the first place).
- The raucous disturbance in the theater: an intoxicated vagrant who snuck into the back row. Fortunately, his bellowing frightened the woman down the row from me so much that she stopped her incessant cackling for about 20 minutes until he was removed from the theater. Everybody received free passes on the way out. Three cheers for the Lagoon Theater management!

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 26/30= 86% = B

Last Word: It's a difficult task reviewing documentaries. In particular, I think one's reaction to these biographical films is very dependent on their individual impression of the subject at hand. In the case of Gonzo, I think it's a film that that can only really be "enjoyed" by those who admire Hunter S. Thompson (including a number of older critics praising this film). I am not in this group, and I found no reason to join it based on the limited evidence presented by Alex Gibney. However, it would be unreasonable to criticize a documentary because I don't like the person I'm learning about. That's not the reason here, it's just a coincidental truth, and I don't fault anyone else for the respect they might have for Thompson.

My real issue was that Alex Gibney didn't seem to work very hard on getting to the heart of who Hunter S. Thompson actually was. I know it's silly to say that since we hear Thompson's own words throughout the film, but I'm saying it: I'm still somewhat hungry after this meal. Had Gibney asked better questions or interviewed people who weren't Thompson's close friends, I suspect we would have, at the very least, a clearer understanding of Thompson's influence on this country. Instead, I'm left to wonder how significant that influence actually was outside of the field of journalism. Maybe that alone is enough, but based on Thompson's final years, I would say that even he was unsure if he had initiated any "change" in America.

I'm not done with Alex Gibney yet, even though his last two films haven't impressed me as much as Enron, which has essentially defined my understanding of the scandal to this day. With Taxi and Gonzo, I felt like I have as many questions as answers when I left the theater. In this case, simply: Who was Hunter S. Thompson and what part of his legacy is relevant today? Gibney is picking the right subjects, but instead of telling an honest story, I wonder if he's not increasingly looking for opportunities to try and prove an ambiguous point.


  1. Just as I was about to log off...

    Sorry you didn't enjoy it more Danny, but I like the point you make at the end of your review, "I felt like I have as many questions as answers when I left the theater."

    For me, that was one of the reasons I loved it as much as I did.

    Will be back tomorrow, I really need to go to bed. lol.

  2. Your criticisms are all pretty fair, though I think my higher opinion of Thompson allowed me to overlook them, particularly the issue of the music. It was a non-issue for me.

    As for the intercutting between Nixon and Bush, I think this is perfectly reasonable. Not because they're similar (and I didn't feel like the movie was making that facile of a comparison), but because the re-election of Nixon was very much a mirror of the re-election of Bush. The former was the beginning of the end for Thompson and the latter was the end of the end.

    Also there's a feeling of history repeating itself.

    However, that's just my take. I agree this wasn't a perfect documentary and I gave it at least an extra half star just for bringing Thompson back to life.

  3. Well, Nick, nowhere can I call it "bad" in any justifiable way. Like I said at LiC, there have just been some real documentary gems this year that have raised the bar in terms of quality, as much as I hate to admit that may color my impression. I wasn't expecting much more than I got, but I do think Gibney has done better work.

    Regarding your schedule, well I basically assume you either live in a 30 hour day-world or you never sleep. How else can one watch and write so much while still in school - except when you skip...

    I'm looking forward to Filmbot: The Life and Work of Nick Plowman.

    Craig, I think Joel said it best at LiC about the music - the songs aren't bad, but this collection was too...easy or cliched or something. In any case, I understand your opinion of Thompson and how it affected your thoughts on the film. I tried to dig at Gibney because I don't want to believe that my opinion of Thompson mattered, but there's no way to prove it.

    I get the Nixon-Bush connection in terms of how it relates to Thompson's "career", but for me it was a matter of the visual style of it. It was a visceral thing, too familiar from YouTube or something, maybe I can't explain it. Either way, I might have accepted it had Gibney really taken that angle and spent as much time focusing on Thompson-Bush as he did on Thompson-Nixon. That would have been an interesting exclusive topic, and a nicely wrapped one at that. But I don't feel like I got enough on Thompson from the 80's onward, including his future legacy.

  4. If you're interested in finding out who Thompson really was, may I recommend Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film? It's a documentary about him (a lot of focus put on films based off his material) from a couple of years ago that is excellent.

  5. k, I rented "Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride" the other day, and liked it the same as I enjoyed "Gonzo," which was quite a bit.

    "Gonzo" was by no means a perfect doc, not at all, but it had something to it. Also, when I saw it, I had no expectations as I didn't follow the Sundance reviews and I saw it before the theatrical reviews came out, so I had no idea what to expect. Not saying that you had expectations or whatever, because I wouldn't know. I also saw it while lying in my own bed, with a bowl of "M & Ms." Just saying, lol. Actually, I have no idea what I am saying.

  6. Daniel - We seem to be disagreeing more than usual lately. Again, I haven't seen this film and probably won't because I grew up with Hunter S. and all the hero worship that attended him and have had my fill of him. (I have read a number of his works and think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great comic work.) But I can say that if one is looking for an indepth look at Thompson, Gibney would be the last person from whom I would expect it.

    I really thought Enron was a mediocre work if you knew anything about Enron at all. It was poorly assembled and had some truly bizarre stuff in it, like the motorcycle weekend scenes. For reimaginings or recreations, whatever you want to call them, Errol Morris is the only one who really does them well. Gibney gathered some interesting facts about Ken Lay, but did we really every get under the skin of these go-go crooks? I have the same complaint about that film that you have about this one; eveything was not illuminating. The one money scene was of the callous traders who cheered the California blackouts. That just wasn't enough for me.

    BTW, while Thompson had a character named Dr. Gonzo, I don't ever remember him using it as a pen name or remember anyone commonly calling him "Gonzo." It's a term he himself applied to the kind of journalism he did. Did Gibney say where he got that info?

  7. Wow. That ESPN post was scarily prophetic.

  8. I noticed this in a City Pages listing and wondered if you'd see it. As a fan, my initial reaction was interestingly blahzay. I feel like the Hunter S. Thompson story has already been told.

    Although your grade probably came out where you wanted it I have to take issue with the 5/5 on music. You make a point to say disliked the soundtrack and then give it full points? Considering most (all?) docs get 5/5 on significance you are kind of running out of grade points on docs. Some constructive critism I would offer might be to change your format for docs versus other films. Maybe add some new categories that are documentary specific.

  9. Daniel grades on a 10-point scale, Teeblah.

  10. Alrighty!

    Thank you, k, for the recommendation. There were a lot of archival clips from Thompson films, and one point I was wondering why Gibney decided to cover such well-tread ground. But I got over that.

    Dang, M & M's are good, Nick. Regular, peanut, or almond, thank you. Believe me I completely understand your expectation situation with Gonzo. You were one of the first to see it and had no reason to be impressed. I don't think you should feel differently if you see it a second time. Your first impression on first viewing is usually the most genuine.

    Marilyn, I'm glad for our disagreements! It livens it up and you make me really consider my thoughts.

    Your point on Enron is valid, and it's interesting that we each had the same reaction to different Gibney films (where you do fall on Taxi?). For somebody who stopped paying attention to the Enron story after the first couple of months, I really thought Gibney did well in summarizing the story and for the most part, talking to the right people. One scene in particular resonated with me, when a utilities worker described how he had lost his pension. For me, I guess that hit home and brought the whole story together in my mind.

    Regarding "Gonzo" - I plead ignorance and stand corrected. You're right that "Dr. Gonzo" was a nickname and "Gonzo" was perhaps more a style or attitude than an alias. From what I remember, Gibney allows Thompson's illustrator friend to discuss the genesis of "Gonzo".

  11. It really is a bizarre piece, Evan, and knowing that Thompson was still writing stuff like that in 2001, I would have liked to know him more in those later years.

    Tom - you got me good here. Behind the scenes I didn't know what to do with that number, and my annoyance with the soundtrack was, I believe, the very last thing I typed. I thought about knocking it down one but then realized it would border on a "B-", which just seemed to low in my head. So does that mean I can't grade a doc lower than a "B" - I don't know! Both this and Chicago 10 received such grades. You really might be right in that documentaries (and animated films for that matter) might deserve a different system. Thanks for pointing it out.

    And he's actually right in this case, Marilyn. My "music" and "significance" categories are 5's because I don't think they should be as critical as the others.

    The scale has its pros and cons, to be sure!

  12. I didn't know that about your scale, Daniel. Thanks and sorry to the commenter for "correcting" something that was already correct.

    I'll give you that Enron was all right as an overview, so from that standpoint, it served its purpose. Yes, I felt horrible for the people who were ruined; they are part of the long continuum of pension fraud in this country that didn't start with them and hasn't stopped. I don't want to seem callous, but as stockholders, they should have insisted on an independent audit. I'm on a board now, and what I know about how they work would make me absolutely insist on impartial review. I've been lucky to work for a number of organizations (nonprofits) that share their financial condition with employees. It's a big advantage to ensure you're not getting screwed.

    Didn't see Taxi. As a member of Amnesty, International, I'm knee deep in anti-torture news, especially from Guantanamo, which AI has been trying to get shut down for more than 2 years. I feel sure, however, that it was an important doc that is well worth seeing.

  13. I was pretty psyched when I scored the advance screening for this one: Alex Gibney, Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp... it couldn't be bad, right?

    I was disappointed. Pistola and I both thought it was just LONG. Not nearly as captivating as Gibney's earlier efforts, which was surprising given the source material. I don't know, maybe he just didn't try as hard this time?

  14. That lack of oversight is one of the things that really scares me about corporations, Marilyn. My work experience has only been in non-profits, where as you say, you know if the ship is sinking.

    As far as Taxi goes, I'll take from my review and agree with you: "Though it's a good excuse to get angry for a few hours, Taxi to the Dark Side can really only be recommended for anyone who has had their head in the sand for the last five years." Good luck with your involvement with AI, by the way.

    "Maybe he didn't try as hard this time?"

    Fair question, Nayana. He probably had more original material and access with this one than with any other, so maybe he just became overwhelmed as he was swimming in it. I feel like Taxi almost got to that point as well.

    I have to say again though that Gibney is really trying to create some important discussions, and for that I can't fault him at all.

  15. I know it's a doc, but I don't want to read this yet because (damnit!!) this still isn't here. Seriously, what's up with Minneapolis getting all the good indies long before Phoenix? Is the Frozen Mob pilfering the few reels that exist for all the theaters up there? Gah!!

  16. Oh I totally avoid documentary reviews, too, Fletch. A spoiler is a spoiler is a spoiler. Talk about Young@Heart if you disagree.

    It's a funny situation with the releases, isn't it? You're stuck inside all summer because of the heat, we're stuck inside all winter because of the cold. But in both cases we seem to get some great selections. Sorry!


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