It seemed like one of those event confluences that Hunter S. Thompson himself would have taken great pleasure in: More than four decades after he lived with the Hell’s Angels (“He was embedded,” says Tom Wolfe) and subsequently wrote the book that would launch a gloriously twisted career, that same motorcycle group descended upon the Garden City on the same weekend a posthumous documentary on the good doctor landed at the Wilma Theatre.
Any thoughts that the Angels might show up to see a piece of their own history was quickly quashed at the sight of the opening-night crowd, which lacked not only a stitch of road leather but also much of the cotton and quick-dry weaves favored by locals. And while good times and arresting visuals—and, perhaps, hallucinatory agents—could not have been lacking Friday night in the triangle formed by downtown, the Angels’ digs on Marshall Mountain, and the Testy Fest up Rock Creek, it hard to imagine any show more fulfilling than Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), Gonzo is a masterwork on a master life. As displayed in the two major films that semi-fictionalize Thompson (1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), there seems to be a natural desire among filmmakers to reflect Thompson’s manic energy in the style of their own work—and it’s clear from Gonzo’s title sequence that Gibney is no exception.
From an over-the-shoulder perspective, we see words pounded on the page by a manual typewriter. It’s one of Thompson’s post-9/11 pieces, angry, sad and eloquent, and framing the superimposed Thompson stand-in are multiple video screens playing news footage of the devastation. It’s a bold, attention-grabber of a move on Gibney’s part, and it serves to remind that Thompson’s work, though diminished in his later years in quantity (and, many would argue, in quality as well), still held the power to pierce and move.
By and large, though, Gonzo covers Thompson in his magnificent prime, a period that ran from the mid-1960s through the late ’70s. The Hell’s Angels segment is a strong one, with Thompson’s somewhat stunned and searching tone of voice as he describes a gang-bang juxtaposed against Angels leader Sonny Barger’s assessment of him as a “brilliant…jerk.” (Some of the most compelling moments in the film are simple audio tracks of Thompson, such as the message he left on artist Ralph Steadman’s phone: “We’ve got a big job: What is the true physical nature of evil? We’ll either kick some ass or get our asses kicked, so call me. Thank you.”)
Thompson’s increasing notoriety led to a media blitz when he ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colo., in 1970, and the combination of news footage, pictures and home movies unearthed by Gibney paints a portrait of, to borrow Wolfe’s phrase, “a man in full.” Thompson shaved his head for the campaign (so he could call his crew-cutted opponent a “long-haired hippie”) and he ran under what he called the “Freak Power” ticket. The sheer weight of personality he carried during this time simply leaps from the screen. With a deft touch, Gibney shows Johnny Depp, who narrates most of Gonzo (all voiceovers in the movie are lifted directly from Thompson’s writing), nonchalantly twirling a handgun while reading Thompson’s political platform, which included legalizing drugs (but punishing dealers, as he despised profiteering), plowing up Aspen’s streets and renaming the chic mountain burg “Fat City” to stem development.
Thompson’s epic coverage of the 1972 Presidential campaign is also well represented, from his prescient hatred of Nixon to his unprecedented (and facetious) attack on Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie as an addict of Ibogaine, an obscure psychoactive compound. Thompson’s heartfelt and unabashed support for George McGovern not only further obliterated the stance of media impartiality his “Gonzo” journalism had no place for, it also showed how surprisingly earnest Thompson could be.
Thompson’s death in 2005, though it saddened many, was a shock to few. Gibney’s handling of the gun suicide is even-handed, as he features both laments (Pat Buchanan!) and strangely touching testimonies (Thompson’s son Juan, who along with the rest of his family was in the house when Thompson killed himself, called it a “warm family moment”). And Thompson’s famous send-off, during which his ashes were blasted off a massive tower, is so stirringly cut together that a young kid in the row ahead of me raised his fist and shouted “Whooo!” in the almost deserted theater.
As I left the downstairs entrance of the Wilma late Friday night, a pack of Hell’s Angels roared over the Higgins Bridge, a clatter of noise and vibration. It was the kind of postscript you’d suspect the good doctor would have enjoyed.