"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," says the reporter in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a film about the importance of living up to one’s image, even when that image is predicated more on fiction than fact. It’s a burden either way, and the dilemma is echoed in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a lively new documentary by Alex Gibney, who directed 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and picked up an Oscar this year for Taxi to the Dark Side.
Gonzo focuses on Thompson’s most fruitful professional period 1965 to 1975, a decade that saw the New Journalism proponent (who committed suicide in 2005) write Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. During that time, he also launched an ill-fated campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., and shaped his public persona into that of a gun-toting, drug-crazed, booze-soaked, authority-bashing champion of outsiders, capable of churning out pages of brilliant and utterly unique prose, always written in first person and most often written while under the influence.
Speaking over the phone from New York City, Gibney reflected that he was drawn to his latest subject largely because of that persona. "He was a guy who didn’t play by the rules, and it seems like we need a guy like that around now, when the rules are being used against us by people in power," the director said. "Also, he seemed like a fun character to do, this larger-than-life character that for at least for a brief period of time became this outlaw that we all wanted to live by."
Gonzo taps quite a bit of home-movie footage, photos, and audiotapes to flesh out Thompson beyond his words (read by Johnny Depp, who bonded with the author while prepping for the 1998 Fear and Loathing movie). A diverse array of contemporary interviews (Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger, both of Thompson’s wives, Pat Buchanan, illustrator Ralph Steadman, George McGovern, and Jimmys Buffet and Carter) bears out the wide range of Thompson’s influence. According to Gibney, the only interview he would have liked to have gotten but didn’t was with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who would only speak off the record.
"My first day on the job was to go out to [Thompson’s funeral] the one Johnny Depp paid for and hang out, try to get a bunch of people to talk, and then shoot the funeral itself. I shot the funeral, but nobody much wanted to talk to me," Gibney recalled. "But once I let everyone know I was doing this film and that it was really gonna focus on his work, that opened people up, and inevitably they started talking about Hunter the character as well."
The funeral, briefly shown in Gonzo, is a surprisingly tasteful spectacle involving taiko drums, a giant cannon, and glimpses of famous friends (John Kerry, Bill Murray). The film doesn’t spend much time on Thompson’s suicide, though in its first scene it speculates how the writer might have lost his trademark edge. In Gibney’s eyes, Thompson’s Dr. Gonzo alter ego was the reason for both his success and his ultimate downfall.
"Initially [his persona] just grew out of a natural journalistic instinct to supply your own perceptions, to put yourself in the story, to be the lens through which viewers would see whatever you were covering," Gibney said. "But over time it became [less of a] lens [and more of a] bubble in which he got trapped. So I think that was the trick. Sometimes this mythical character he created just kind of took over. As he remarks in the film, ‘Sometimes I don’t know who to be, whether to be Duke or Hunter.’<0x2009>"
Duality also manifested itself in Thompson’s private personality, which Gibney was surprised to discover as being "almost bipolar."
"Hunter’s mood swings kind of represented his ability to see the kind of schisms or splits in the American character," he said. "I knew he was always a very perceptive writer about the American character, but I think maybe he was so perceptive because he more than a lot of people is like America. Sort of the best and the worst. I didn’t really understand till I started the film just how many-sided he was."
Visually dynamic and entertaining for Thompson devotees as well as those who only know him from Depp’s portrayal in Fear and Loathing, Gonzo is nonetheless tinged with the melancholy that eventually tempered Thompson’s considerable lust for life. Blame health problems, professional frustrations, the re-election of George W. Bush, or more existential concerns Thompson’s quest for the American Dream, documented in Fear and Loathing and elsewhere, was never really satisfied. Instead, Gibney speculated, "I think he ended up finding how elusive it is, and how much-desired it is but how rare it is to ever find it. And that’s what he found in Vegas, I think: what a perfect vehicle for the death of the American dream, this place where you go hoping to fulfill that rags to riches dream, yet in some fundamental way knowing that the house always wins."
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters