A conventional filmmaker, Alex Gibney, salutes one of literature’s legendary rebels, Hunter S. Thompson, in the documentary “Gonzo,” and this matching indeed yields no revelations about its indomitable, outrageous, iconoclastic, substance-consuming, gun-loving subject.
But the movie is nonetheless an engaging, entertaining look at what the fuss over Thompson was, and is, about, and at the brief but magnificent counterculture of his meaningful day.
Via interviews, footage and Thompson’s own words (read aloud by Johnny Depp), the film presents Thompson as a singular creative force and also as a two-prong personification of an America that is both idealistic and destructive.
Gibney concentrates on Thompson’s peak decade, 1965-75, when Thompson originated Gonzo journalism — full-steam, first-person reportage laced with fabrication that serves as deeper truth.
Three Thompson publications — “Hell’s Angels,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” — receive foremost attention.
Additionally, we have two marriages, a home in Colorado, a “Doonesbury” character, and a run for sheriff featuring a Thompsonesque mix of patriotism and performance art.
Thompson takes epic amounts of drugs and gets crazy with firearms. Eventually, his gonzo persona destroys him. In 2005, no longer writing like his old self, Thompson commits suicide.
Gibney, who has made two good documentaries about egregious conduct (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”), fares weaker with the differently themed “Gonzo.”
Not the edgiest of filmmakers, he doesn’t dip into Thompson’s brain and includes too many excerpts from the wilder Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He virtually ignores Thompson’s post-1970s years. His choices of period songs are embarrassing. (The lyric “I think I’m going out of my head” plays during a segment on vice presidential candidate Tom Eagleton’s electroshock treatment for depression.)
But overall, Gibney combines facts, fancies and tidbits galore into a colorful, detail-packed salute to Thompson and 1960s counterculture.
The inclusion of a hearty dose of Thompson’s writing (“It was the built-in blind spot of the Objective Rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place”) should satisfy Thompson fans and newcomers alike.
Talking-heads material features worthy commentary from 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, former president Jimmy Carter, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, author Tom Wolfe, Thompson’s first and second wives, and illustrator Ralph Steadman, among others.
Enlightening it isn’t, but this documentary often is captivating.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (3 stars)
Starring Johnny Depp, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner
Written and directed by Alex Gibney
Running time 1 hour 59 minutes