Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) Review

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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008): 6 out of 10: Is Hunter S Thompson any more relevant to modern journalism than Joe Namath is to modern football? Both were men of their times. In addition, both faded badly by the mid-seventies. Thompson’s early work is excellent (a copy of “The Proud Highway” sits on my bookshelf) and reached its pinnacle, with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72.

A mere three years later, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner had become so fed up with Thompson he tried to have him killed.

As Gonzo.org puts it, “Then, early one evening in March 1975, Hunter was watching a nightmarish film of the evacuation of Da Nang on the evening news. The phone rang, and Hunter picked it up. It was Wenner, saying, “How would you like to go to Vietnam?” Hunter could not resist. The collapse of the American empire was a happening tailor-made for his talents. Within days, he was heading out over the Pacific. He arrived in Saigon hours after Thieu’s palace had been bombed and strafed by his own Air Force. For a man who lived with the conviction that the world would end next Monday, this was an especially ominous portent. Thompson had the sense of “walking into a death camp.” This was it. He would never get out alive. As it turned out, the fate that was in store for him was even worse. Thompson discovered that, even as he was on his way to Vietnam, Wenner had taken him off retainer – in effect, fired him – and with the retainer went his staff benefits, including health and life insurance.” Also, leaving him no way out of Vietnam… a one-way ticket if you will.

Dude, that is cold…

And that is the very nature of the problem with this documentary. Why is this story not mentioned? Who knows? It was a turning point in Thompson’s life (He apparently became more withdrawn and paranoid afterwards… understandably so). Unfortunately, Gonzo is a pollyannaish look at Thompson, which avoids such subjects. The abuse of his first marriage gets a glancing look and all the interviewees (including Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and Jann Wenner) seem hesitant to speak ill of the dead.

That in a few short years Thompson turned from a well-respected writer into a Muppet and Doonesbury cartoon is not covered well. The fact is mentioned, but Gonzo glosses over the reasons. It is as if the film is worried that by mentioning his failures it will reduce his significance.

Yet, I would argue that Thompson’s effect on journalism is larger than he gets credit for. Reporters nowadays often ignore facts, concentrating instead on how events make them feel. Anderson Cooper crying during the Hurricane Katrina coverage threatened to become a bigger story than the storm itself. (He was not helped when fellow Mensa candidate Wolf Blitzer said “You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals…many of these people, almost all of them that we see are so poor and they are so black”) The documentary never really focuses on this aspect either. Gonzo seems to fear pulling back any of the masks its subject wears, presumably scared of what it might find. Gonzo would have been better served concentrating on one period and focusing its energies.

That said, for those unfamiliar with Hunter S Thompson outside of his Muppet form, this is a good start. If it gets people to read his earlier work so much, the better.

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