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The moral immoralist

Alex Gibney’s documentary probes the private life a Gonzo pioneer

In this day and age, only the crazy and perverse grab our attention – but like the American icon Hunter Thompson, it’s their gut and fire that make them worth talking about.

The bastard child of literary journalism gets some well-deserved praise in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a documentary illustrating the never-ending acid trip that was Thompson’s life. Academy-award-winning director Alex Gibney successfully adapts Thompson’s unique journalistic voice for the big screen, albeit much differently than in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Here we’re shown the objective reality of Thompson’s adventures, the story behind the Technicolor blur of his writings. From the Hell’s Angels to the Kentucky Derby, we relive the expeditions that motivated his writing and fuelled his ideological critiques from the midst of an American social revolution.

For those unfamiliar with the troublemaker, Hunter was the founding father of Gonzo Journalism. With a PhD in Gonzology, Hunter blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality, writer and subject – a journalistic tool now popularized by publications like CounterPunch and Vice magazine. Thompson was on a tireless search for the American dream, until he finally came to grips with a heartbreaking reality: “The American Dream actually is fucked.”

We’ve seen the seductive drug films Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, and it’s hard to forget Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – an epic tale that challenges any sense of morality and physical limits. The Hollywood adaptation of Thompson’s story delved into his subconscious, heavily dosed with psychedelic drugs, as he raids the desert with his law-breaking attorney. Watching it makes you feel as if Hunter himself has passed you a joint, cut a line of coke, and slipped you some acid. Sobering up, you see more clearly the incidents that unfolded, and what really went on that road trip. Then the documentary begins.

When I first saw the film, I had only vague knowledge of Thompson’s work as a columnist for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine, but the film helped me gain a much more complete understanding of who the man really was. Though not all of us have experienced the freaky circus of the sixties or the political unrest of the decades to come, the film does much to make up for that.

In Gonzo, we see Thompson’s personal photos, audio clips, and first-hand accounts from his friends, family, and colleagues. The filmmaker succeeds at gluing together explosive visuals in montages that approximate Thompson’s state of mind in different situations, while at the same time keeping our feet firmly rooted in the historical and cultural context.

The film score itself parallels Thompson’s rock and roll ethos. Every song is carefully chosen to match the changing times Hunter was forced to adapt to. It’s hard to resist a documentary narrated by the sexy Johnny Depp, gun in hand, along with a killer soundtrack of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan. These were the musical heroes of Thompson’s time, his comrades who spoke through songs and left him to do the dirty work.

Described in the film as “a moralist posing as an immoralist,” Thompson used fiction to tell the truth. There just aren’t enough documentaries out there that reveal the twisted mind of a patriotic revolutionary in a way that spotlights every domain of their unconscious. Watching clips of his contribution to the Freak Power movement as he ran for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970, and videos of Thompson gracefully gliding in a pool wearing a mask of Dick Nixon’s face, helps us comprehend what planet this man came from.

A warning to those who find the subject of drugs and firearms appalling: don’t watch this film. For the non-squeamish, the overwhelming amount of content may make you space out a couple of times, but you definitely won’t fall asleep. It’s a gift to be granted the opportunity to trespass on Thompson’s personal space and examine the genius-beast inside out. There’s no need to smoke a joint before watching Gonzo, but Hunter S. Thompson would probably recommend it.