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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
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by Peter Sobczynski

"No Bat Country For Old Men"
3 stars

The standard rap on the late and legendary scribe Hunter S. Thompson is that during his heyday (a period roughly spanning the later 1960’s through the end of the 1970’s) he wrote three great books (“Hell’s Angels,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72”), several equally impressive pieces of short-form writing for magazines like “Rolling Stone“ (many of which were collected in the anthology “The Great Shark Hunt” and rewrote the rules of his particular racket with the development of what would be dubbed “gonzo journalism”--an intense form of first-person reportage in which the writer became a central and active participant in the proceedings they were covering instead of merely standing aside as a passive observer--but when that heyday ended, he became lost in a fog of booze and drugs that sapped his creative juices to such an extent that he spent the next quarter-century as a prisoner to his self-created image as a wild man in his remote cabin in Woody Creek, Colorado who virtually nothing worth reading before ending it all with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head in 2005. In recent years, both before and after his death, there have been a slew of documentaries and biographies on Thompson that have perpetuated his cartoonish (literally, thanks to Garry Trudeau’s Uncle Duke character in “Doonesbury”) persona at the expense of his considerable achievements as a writer by focusing on the binges and the weirdness instead of the work. At first, the new film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” seems as though it is going to buck this tide by opening with quotes not from one of his legendary pieces, but from a column he wrote on September 11, 2001 for ESPN.com, of all places, in which he coolly and presciently predicted virtually everything that would happen in the next few years only a few hours after the Twin Towers collapsed. It is a nervy start but unfortunately, it is pretty much the only unexpected moment in a film that pretty much winds up reinforcing the standard school of thought on Thompson’s life and work instead offering any new thoughts or ideas on the subject.

Pretty much all the key points of Thompson’s career are duly ticked off here. We learn about his experiences researching what would eventually become “Hell’s Angels” that saw him first accepted by the group and then later viciously beaten after an argument got out of control. We hear the stories of how he developed his unique method of storytelling and how it came to full flower with a work that began as an assignment to cover a motorcycle race for “Sports Illustrated” and eventually mushroomed into “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” We hear about his attempt to run for the office of sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, a project that began as a joke (at one point, he shaved his head so that he could comment on his “long-haired opponent”) and which he came tantalizingly close to actually winning. We hear the stories of the nutty things that he did on the campaign trail in 1972, such as reporting on rumors that Ed Muskie was helplessly in the grip of a rare Portuguese rug (a rumor that he personally made up) and having a one-on-one conversation with Richard Nixon exclusively on the topic of pro football. We hear about how his extensive coverage of a Georgia Law Day speech given by a relative unknown by the name of Jimmy Carter helped to spur his successful presidential bid. And, of course, we hear the stories about the drugs, alcohol and ennui and how they all began to take a toll on his work until even his most loyal partisans found themselves washing their hands of him because of his increasing inability to do something as simple as meet a deadline or even show up for the event that he was hired at great expense to cover. (In one of the most infamous incidents, he was sent by “Rolling Stone” to cover the 1974 Ali-Forman fight in Zaire and he was so convinced that Foreman would prevail that he gave away his tickets and hung around the hotel pool--to find out what happened, I recommend renting the great documentary “When We Were Kings.”)

Although Thompson was famous for breaking all the rules in his particular area of reporting, “Gonzo” utilizes the standard template used by most documentarians when their central subject is no longer willing or able to appear on camera. There is a wealth of old footage culled from interviews, news reports, home movies and other Thompson documentaries--while much of this material will seem familiar to Thompson scholars, there are some fascinating tidbits on display, the strangest of which is easily footage of Thompson as the mystery guest on the game show “What’s My Line?” (No--neither one of the ersatz Thompsons appears to be P.J. O’Rourke.). We hear excerpts from Thompson’s prose (as read by Johnny Depp) and from the audiotapes that he frequently made as part of his research. There are plenty of soundtrack cues of songs from the era chosen to underline the different moods, including a bit from a tune written by Thompson himself entitles “Weird and Twisted Nights.” Most importantly, there are talking-head interviews with a decidedly eclectic group of friends and colleagues, including the likes of Tom Wolfe, Jann Wenner, Sonny Barger, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Buffet, Gary Hart and Pat Buchannan, who met Thompson in his position as Nixon’s press secretary and developed a friendly relationship with him despite being frequently and floridly excoriated by him in print. With the exception of Barger, understandably, all of them speak of Thompson in glowing terms regarding their memories of the man and his work while mourning the grim later years in which , as one puts it, “he became a hostage to his persona” and in nearly every case, they all still seem a little shell-shocked from the experience of knowing him.

This is all reasonably interesting and entertaining, I suppose, and “Gonzo” may well serve as an eye-opener to those who know Thompson only as the depraved caricature that he became thanks to “Doonesbury” and his increasingly incoherent public appearances. However, I would venture to guess that the majority of people interested in seeing this film are those who are already Thompson fanatics and who want to hear more than the same old stories about his adventures in Vegas and on the campaign trail. For example, I would to have liked to known more about his thoughts on the contemporary political apparatus (he would cover the 1992 Clinton campaign, mostly via watching CNN, for the book “Better Than Sex,” pen an excellent fictional screed against Clarence Thomas in the article “Fear and Loathing in Elko” and a piece following John Kerry during his campaign would prove to be his final piece for “Rolling Stone.”) I would have like to have seen stuff on some of the other topics that he covered during his alleged years of inactivity, which ranged from Grenada to the Roxanne Pulitzer trial to his own legal troubles stemming from a questionable search and seizure of the contents of his cabin that lasted until all the charges were dismissed before going to trial, an incident that led him to form an organization dedicated to helping defend those . Most of all, I would have liked to have seen some stuff on his advocacy of the case of Lisl Auman, a Colorado woman who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a police officer despite a lack of any substantial evidence and later had her conviction overturned after Thompson brought renewed interest to the case and helped provide her with proper legal counsel. His ability to write eloquently on these subjects suggests that he still had the ability to write memorable prose when properly goaded, but the film never even mentions them, preferring instead to simply shoot through the last 25 years of his life in just a few minutes by repeating the same old mantra about him being too burned out to write anything of value.

“Gonzo” was directed by Alex Gibney, whose previous films have included the excellent documentaries “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.” In those films, he took stories that many people knew about but few understood outside of the broadest strokes and presented them in ways that made them easily understandable without ever reducing their complexity in an effort to make their stories more accessible. I suppose that in a way, Gibney is trying to do the same thing here but for whatever reason, he is never quite able to get beyond the familiar in order to give viewers a new and penetrating look at the subject of Thompson and his work. Instead, he merely gives us a surface-level recitation of Thompson’s best-known moments and while it is relatively glib and enjoyable and filled with interesting moments both old (such as a strange television confrontation between Thompson and Barger after the publication of “Hell’s Angels”) and new (especially the final words from Pat Buchannan) that fans of Thompson will enjoy watching, the simple truth is that it a documentary that isn’t quite worthy of its subject. Then again, maybe this isn’t so much Gibney’s fault as a simple admission that the only person who could have recounted Thompson’s story in the manner that it deserves was Thompson himself and sadly, he is no longer speaking to us outside of his previously published work, a collection that still surges with a vibrancy and immediacy that puts most contemporary journalism, including this film, to shame.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16956&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/04/08 18:58:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/16/09 caleb morgan great review: my thoughts, but better-stated and more comprehensive. thanks 3 stars
11/26/08 CTT Interesting, but the Gonzo docu genre has run its course 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  04-Jul-2008
  DVD: 18-Nov-2008

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  DVD: 18-Nov-2008



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