Hunter S. Thompson approached life like one long, extended suicide attempt, so no one was terribly surprised when he finally finished the job in 2005 at age 67. Least surprised were his family members, who were home with him when he pulled the trigger and today have fond memories of that weekend, like it was a lovely family gathering.
That’s just one of the many delightfully odd details of Thompson’s life conveyed in “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” a smooth new documentary by Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”). Like most biographies, the film makes ample use of talking heads and old footage — but since everyone’s talking about Hunter S. Thompson, you know they’re going to be interesting, not to mention diverse (Pat Buchanan and Tom Wolfe were both old friends of his).
Thompson was a journalist, a novelist, and an ambitious partaker of mind-altering substances, perhaps best-known to younger audiences for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which featured his alter ego Raoul Duke and was made into a film starring Johnny Depp. (Depp reads some of Hunter’s prose in the film.) When Thompson died, NBC’s Brian Williams eulogized him as a “professional troublemaker,” and that’s a pretty accurate summation. Gibney’s documentary gives the impression that Thompson was generally anti-establishment — whatever The Man wanted, Thompson wanted the opposite.
He missed his own high school graduation because he was in jail. He ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colo. When he met Ralph Steadman, who would go on to be his long-time illustrator, the first thing he did was introduce him to mescaline. He spent a year in the 1960s with the Hell’s Angels. He covered the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign for Rolling Stone, and dutifully reported that there was a rumor about McGovern’s opponent, Edmund Muskie, being on drugs. True enough, such a rumor was making the rounds. And who started the rumor? Hunter S. Thompson.
The documentary benefits from abundant footage of Thompson himself, shot over the last four decades, giving the viewer plenty of opportunities to see the crazy fellow in action. Interviews with his ex-wives reveal that he was both generous and vicious, and that while he was aware of both sides of his personality, he couldn’t seem to control them. Thompson admirers will enjoy the film the most, of course, but even the uninitiated will surely find him a fascinating character, if not always a likable one.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; )