Friday, July 4, 2008

The life and career of Hunter S. Thompson

Alex Gibney won an Oscar for his documentary "Taxi To the Dark Side," a probing look at the effects of torture and wrongful imprisonment in the fight against terror. Prior to that, he scored with "The Smartest Guys in the Room," a zesty documentary about the Enron debacle.

Now, comes "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a big-screen biography of the writer credited with inventing gonzo-style journalism. A renegade capable of monumental and unashamed self-indulgence, Thompson remains a figure who may be more important for his legend than for his work. How you respond to Gibney's documentary may depend on how you respond to Thompson. Fans will devour it the way Thompson claimed to have gobbled pills. Others may find themselves tuning in and out.

Most of the people Gibney interviewed can't recall Thompson without smiling, which says something about the guy, but Gibney's movie -- composed of interviews, archival footage and home movies -- tends to overdo. It goes on about Thompson -- and then goes on some more. Maybe that's unavoidable. The movie is built around Thompson, a writer who became a countercultural star and who watched the passing circus through his own peculiar, drug addled consciousness.

It remains to be seen whether Thompson's most important work -- "Hells Angels,'' "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas," and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" -- will have lasting value. But even after his death, Thompson continues as a figure who makes readers long for the emergence of another rebel with a typewriter. The man had fans. I attended a packed preview screening of "Gonzo." The audience's often-vocal responses made me believe that Gibney -- whose more significant documentary about torture didn't attract much of an audience -- will score bigger this time.

Say this: Thomson had a powerful ego. If that ego drove much of his work, its power seems to have extended beyond death, finding posthumous expression in this overly long movie. Still, "Gonzo" has its virtues -- as a summation of a tumultuous period in our semi-recent history, as a look at someone who tried to live in perpetual extremis and as a document that proves that the vices of the self-indulgent often are excused by devotes who dabble, though far less adventurously, in some of the same behavior.

At times, I found the movie indulgent, as well. I wish, for example, that "Gonzo'' -- which is narrated by Johnny Depp -- had used less footage from Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." One viewing of that movie was quite enough, thank you. But even someone as dubious as myself found some laughs in Thompson's more outrageous ploys and enjoyed revisiting some of his descriptions of Richard M. Nixon, a man he regarded as a shabby crook who represented the worst part of the American spirit. Or better still, there's Thompson's bizarre assertion that Ed Muskie, at the time a vice presidential candidate, had fried his brain with a drug called Ibogaine. People evidently believed Thompson, who blurred the line between satire and journalism, was onto something.

Still, I couldn't help making a mental comparison: Thompson's career took a major downturn when he was sent to Zaire to cover the famous Ali-Foreman fight. Convinced Ali would get clobbered, Thompson spent the fight bobbing in a hotel pool. At the same time, Norman Mailer -- a better writer and a more courageous thinker -- was writing some of the best boxing prose anyone ever authored.

Thompson, Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who's interviewed by Gibney, helped radicalize journalistic style -- if only for a moment. Of them all, I find Mailer the most interesting. Watching "Gonzo" only reinforced that belief, but it did make me nostalgic for a time when the there seemed to be more virtue in antagonizing the mainstream than in trying to appease it.

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