"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a documentary from Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") is pretty much a wallow in all things Thompson, the Rolling Stone reporter who introduced a form of participatory, crazed, possibly booze- and hallucinogenic-driven reportage called "gonzo."
The film is undone by an issue that challenges all biographical documentaries. It can show only what's already there, and there's a lot more on some issues than others. For example, "Gonzo" spends way too much time on a relatively minor (if famous) Thompson episode: his 1970 run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., his chosen place of domicile, on a ticket of "Freak Power." It got him a lot of publicity but, in the end, was of little import.
As for the five W's of classic old-school journalism (who, what, when, where and why), the film is less rigorous. I could easily do without the first four W's, as they're already more or less known, but where's the fifth one? Where's the why? What was it that impelled this high-school grad from middle-class Lexington, Ky., to journey to New York after he got out of the Air Force and, knowing nobody and knowing almost nothing, begin to build himself a career as a freelance writer? What further impelled his "breakthrough," in pre-Rolling Stone days, when he was writing a piece on the Kentucky Derby, and he chose as its main feature his own boozy misadventures in that town? The movie never asks and never wonders. It simply takes Thompson on his own terms, without considering what seems to me to be the essence of journalism, which is W No. 5.
So the film is largely for true believers and has a good time -- and gives a good time -- re-creating some of its subject's amusingly outlandish stunts as well as his defiantly unprofessional behavior. It seems to celebrate him more for his attitude, his fashionably leftist politics, his fame and his friendships than for any meaningful accomplishment.
-- Stephen Hunter (July 4, 2008)
Contains drug and sexual content, nudity and profanity.