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GONZO, 2008
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GONZOGONZO : The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S Thompson, 2008
Movie Review

Directed by Alex Gibney
DOCUMENTARY
Review by Tom Coatsworth



SYNOPSIS:

Fueled by a raging libido, Wild Turkey, and superhuman doses of drugs, Thompson was a true "free lance, " goring sacred cows with impunity, hilarity, and a steel-eyed conviction for writing wrongs. Focusing on the good doctor's heyday, 1965 to 1975, the film includes clips of never-before-seen (nor heard) home movies, audiotapes, and passages from unpublished manuscripts.

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REVIEW:

“When the going gets tough the weird turn pro.” To gauge the revolution in music and literature in the sixties, early seventies, the going got extremely tough: the weird were turning pro in record number. A decade that started innocently enough with The Beach Boys ended with The Viet Nam War; two dead Kennedy’s and Iggy Pop and The Stooges. When Hunter Thompson covered the violent Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 he was convinced the American Dream was “clubbing itself to death.” It was a critical moment for him. He would go on to wage war with the dark forces that were killing the dream. The pen was his weapon – fueled with Wild Turkey, a variety of through the counter drugs and an imagination and constitution that seemed limitless.

The film starts with his suicide in February 2005 – he shot himself at his home at Woody Creek Colorado, while he was talking with his wife on the phone, while his son was in another room. He had talked about it for years – it’s the way he wanted to go. From there it treads back to his roots in Louisville Kentucky, a stint with the Air Force and his start in journalism.

His break came in California in the mid-sixties. He spent a year with the Hell’s Angels – road with them, befriended them. By the end of the experience any romanticism he’d had about the rebel gang was literally beat out of him. The result was ‘Hell’s Angels’ – a book that brought him national attention. He went on to become the premiere writer for Rolling Stone magazine; got to know The Merry Pranksters. The counter culture was on the move and Thompson was in the forefront. He moved to Woody Creek, just outside Aspen, Colorado, and ran for sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket: if elected he pledged to have all the streets returned to sod -- this would discourage the developers. Dishonest drug dealers would be clapped in stocks in the town square. It’s almost a pity he didn’t win. But fate had bigger plans.

He and British cartoonist Ralph Steadman were deployed to cover The Kentucky Derby – the result is one of the funniest stories ever written and the birth of “gonzo” journalism. Thompson needs to be read to be understood – his antics, this film, they all merely hint at the madcap delight he lets loose on the page. He followed that with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – perhaps his best known work.

By 1972 he is covering George McGovern’s campaign for president. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Nixon had originally promised to end the War, he had expanded it – they were looking at four more years of “Tricky Dick”. Thompson believed in McGovern. Of Nixon he said: “He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the US Army lost in all of WWII.”

McGovern lost his bid for president, Nixon won a second term and the nation slid into the throes of Watergate. Something in Thompson died: “This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesman with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

He was also becoming a prisoner of fame. Wherever he went he was the story – it became harder and harder to observe – the life blood of writing. In 1974 he covered the Ali, Foreman fight in Zaire Africa. Muhammad Ali was a fellow Kentuckian and a hero of Thompson’s, but he was going up against a younger George Foreman – a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Rather than watch another hero go down to defeat Thompson sold his tickets and drank by the motel pool. Ali knocked Foreman out in eight rounds -- one of the great upsets. It was a turning point for Thompson as well.

The years that followed saw the end of his first marriage, the beginning of his second, and a general waning of his power and influence.

The film draws on interviews from the likes of Jimmy Carter; George McGovern; Tom Wolfe; Jimmy Buffet; his son and two wives. Johnny Depp narrates – he and Thompson became good friends when Depp played him in the film: “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Depp lived with him at Woody Creek for a time to study his habits. When Thompson died Depp stepped up to fulfill his friend’s last wishes – a great wake was held on the property at Woody Creek and Thompson’s ashes were blown from a cannon -- a fitting tribute to a true American original – as is this film.

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