MONKEY REVIEW: Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

November 30, 2008

gonzoAlex Gibney’s feature documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is about two/thirds an excellent look at the legendary and deeply influential American writer’s life. It briefly notes his early years as a young man growing up in Kentucky, then goes into more detail about his early success with his first published book, Hell’s Angels, his nationally publicized run for sheriff of Aspen, his breakthrough success with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the political writing that culminated in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. For all practical purposes, though, its look at Thompson’s work ends with an account of a failed article for Rolling Stone in 1974 about the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. After that, according to Jann Wenner (co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine) and Sondi Wright (Hunter’s first wife), two of the impressive range of figures in Thompson’s life interviewed on camera for the documentary, Thompson’s career went into a decline. Wright claims Thompson couldn’t write after that, and the last third of the documentary runs with this, characterizing Thompson as a person overwhelmed and finally defeated by his own fame. The problem with this is that Thompson did in fact continue to write and publish all the way up until his death in 2005 by self-inflicted gunshot wound, and while it might not have been equal to the standard that he set for himself with his earlier works, and while it might not have been the writing some people thought he should be doing, he did continue to build a body of work. Gonzo acknowledges this to some degree, but just barely, cleaving mostly to its “rise and fall” version of Thompson’s life. It also completely leaves out his involvement with the Lisl Auman case in the last five years of his life. Auman was a young woman sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Denver policeman committed by a companion she barely knew and during a time in which she was already in police custody. He campaigned on her behalf, wrote an article about her case for Vanity Fair magazine, and recruited others to her cause, which ultimately resulted in her sentence being reversed, two weeks after Thompson committed suicide. That Gonzo doesn’t even mention this case is a gross omission, as it illustrates that while Thompson’s writing career might declined, the interest and commitment to social justice that marked his best political writing never did. (For a look at Hunter and the Auman case, see Wayne Ewing’s documentary Free Lisl: Fear And Loathing In Denver.) I can recommend Gonzo on the basis of its first two/thirds, but I would advise potential viewers that as a look at Thompson’s life and work, it’s necessarily incomplete and even perhaps a bit misleading and unfair with regard to his accomplishments in his final years.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

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