Hunter S. Thompson’s life was made for the movies. The hellion youth turned hellion writer practiced an immersive form of journalism, dubbed Gonzo, that plunged him into American powder-kegs from the Hell’s Angels violent ranks and the 1968 Democratic Convention melee to the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign and a frenetic personal run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo.
Highly subjective, borderline fictitious and cut with Olympian doses of intoxicants, his writing was unorthodox, but it captured the essence of the United States at its most politically and socially turbulent. His distorted lens shot pure truth — for better or worse.
Alex Gibney, director of Best Documentary Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark Side, follows in the steps of Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Art Linson (Where the Buffalo Roam) and attempts to bring the wildchild’s life to the screen. And like his fellow filmmakers, he almost succeeds. The documentary form serves well, with archival footage and testimony from Thompson’s friends, family and associates (Johnny Depp, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe, Jann Wenner and more) forming the Hunter Thompson dichotomy — an extremely sensitive and nurturing man that cared deeply about the world and who was also a hell-raising, gun-loving demon that actively rebelled and withdrew all the way until his suicide in 2005. These clips, accolades and anecdotes range from the riotously funny to the touching, but they paint a superficial portrait.
By focusing on Thompson’s wild side, Gibney ignores the man behind the image — the artist, the wordsmith. The internal forces and inspirations that drove him remain a mystery in favor of sensational entertainment. Grade: C