Life and work, yes; gonzo, not so much

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

This slick two-hour documentary lives up to its subtitle more than its one-word title. There’s nothing particularly gonzo about it, and it doesn’t really throw any new or interesting light on Hunter S. Thompson’s self-hyping “gonzo journalism.”

As a chronologically organized bio-doc, it feels a little too much like a made-for-TV exercise in infotainment—a superficially comprehensive compilation of film clips, talking heads, pop music excerpts and glib social history.

The film’s director, Alex Gibney, has made highly regarded documentaries on the Enron fiasco (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and torture and the war on terror (the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side). Gibney tries to give the new film some of the contemporary topicality and urgency of his prior accomplishments, but here that only serves to heighten the disappointment.

Thompson was a pop-cultural legend in his own time (the ‘60s and ‘70s in particular) and, in part, of his own making. Gibney’s account is at its best when Thompson’s contradictions are most conspicuously on display: the gifted writer, the flamboyant contrarian, the self-mythologizing celebrant of wretched excess, the gun-loving critic of the war in Vietnam, etc.

All of that is fully on display in Gonzo, but Gibney’s presentation of the material doesn’t do much more than throw it all up for grabs. With presidents and political candidates and various movie folk all on hand, along with the likes of Tom Wolfe, Ralph Steadman and the publisher of Rolling Stone, there’s still lots of intriguing stuff here. But the big themes that Thompson ostensibly pursued never get the incisive critical examination they deserve.