Jul 2, 2008

On Gonzo

Simultaneously triumphant and tragic, the Hunter S. Thompson constructed by Alex Gibney in his latest documentary Gonzo, a phantasmagorical look at the both under and overrated New Journalism figure, is something of an American hero reclaimed and forever misunderstood, that is until now. Thanks to Gibney's new film, we can firmly see him as a supremely talented man trapped by his cult fame and ultimately subsumed in self-generated myths.

As a man of letters, the precocious middle class kid from Louisville, one who loved guns, dope and America with equal measure, was remarkably erratic and perhaps, in the end, not good enough to attain the furthest reaches of his ambitions. That he knew it, and that it ultimately killed him, is one of Gibney’s central premises in his altogether riveting portrayal of the ever stylish iconclast. The film never bores and goes to great lengths to show just what a remarkably gifted and innovative journalist he was, even while, and perhaps because, he was stoned out of (or far into) his mind.

At the film’s opening the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi from the Dark Side delves into Thompson’s Colorado home, delivering Johnny Depp, Thompson’s Hollywood alter ego in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reciting a terribly prescient column Thompson wrote after 9/11 of the unjust wars and magnificent lies sure to come in the wake of that terribly tragedy.

Hooked from the beginning, Gibney then deftly guides us through some of Thompson’s well known adventures (riding with the Hell’s Angels, the excursion to Vegas with his lawyer, Brown power figure Oscar Acosta, his long partnership with British illustrator Ralph Steadman his coverage of the 72’ Democratic presidential primary) and some which are lesser known (his fascinating run for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, the botched attempt at a Rolling Stone piece on "The Rumble in the Jungle", his key early coverage of Jimmy Carter’s speeches to decidedly fascist factions like the Georgia Bar Association in 1975), while weaving through a mountain of interviews with major political and literary figures of the era (Jimmy Carter, Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jann Wenner, even Jimmy Buffett).

Gibney's expertly gathered archival material, photographs, drawings (many by Steadman), contemporary interviews and doc footage, has previously been mostly absent from the parade of self important docs about 60s icons and is used to zippy, staggering effect. No waiting for the next rally or political speech or dope smoking hippie or southern attack dog here; the water hoses are checked at the door, but not without effectively contextualizing each of Thompson's journalistic adventures within the larger political and social struggles of the day. Even the period music doesn’t seem tired and retread.

Gibney has quickly become one of the most consistently fascinating of American documentarians, one who is as vital a contributor to the cultural conversation as we have. He vigorously approaches the moral questions raised by our volatile age of greed, one in which historical perspective and rampant fear mongering rule the day while legitimately grave concerns about the environment, pandemics and nuclear proliferations are ignored, with intelligence and wit.

Released less than a year after his Oscar winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney is already at work on a documentary about Eliot Spitzer, our fallen ex-Empire State governor. This film and Gibney’s Enron picture were both backed by the now defunct HDNet films, which was fronted by smart veteran producers Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s significant resources. Here’s hoping Gibney continues to find the money to make these spectacular documentaries.