Gonzo (2008): Alex Gibney’s Documentary of Thompson (Suicide)

Sundance Film Fest 2008–Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Gonzo, deconstructs Thompson, the mythic American figure, once described by Tom Wolfe as America’s greatest comic writer.
Thompson’s suicide by a gunshot led Rolling Stone Magazine, where Thompson began his career, to devote an entire issue (its best-selling ever) to the man who developed a brash, irreverent style of journalism named gonzo after an anarchic blues riff by James Booker.

“Gonzo” world premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Fest and will be released theatrically by Magnolia in early July.

With “Gonzo,” the gifted helmer Alex Gibney continues to establish an impressive body of works, following the Oscar-nominated “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room,” and the Oscar-winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” While always intriguing, the docu walks a fine line between a critical evaluation of the man and his work and a laudatory view that elevates Thompson to a mythic level of canonization; clearly, Gibney and his team admire the creative artist at the center of their feature.

Touching on many fascinating and controversial aspects of Thompson’s life and output, “Gonzo” succeeds in raising questions about the power of contempo journalism in setting the socio-political agenda, while shedding light on a particularly significant era in the history of American arts and letters.

The docu focuses on Thompsons work, particularly his most provocative and productive period, from 1965 to 1975. His wicked words resonate today, at a time when politicians have become manufactured celebrities, issuing generalities and banalities that rarely offend. Too often, contemporary journalists play the politicians game, taking them seriously with a balanced respect, an approach that Thompson never stood for.

To borrow from actor Kris Kristofferson, Thompson was a walking contradiction, partly truth, mostly fiction. A die-hard member of the NRA, he was also a coke-snorting, whiskey-swilling, acid-eating fiend. While his pen skewered with venom crooked politicians, he surprised his visitors with the courtly manners and soft-spoken speech of a Southern gentleman.

Careening out of control in his personal life, Thompson also maintained a steel-eyed conviction about righting wrongs. At present, Thompson remains an iconic crusader for truth, justice and a fiercely idealistic American way. Like Jack Kerouacs On the Road, his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the movie made from it by Terry Gilliam, remains a wanderlust myth for generation after generation of American youth.

For the most esteemed journalists, from Tom Wolfe, and Walter Isaacson (former editor of “Time” magazine) to the “N.Y. Times” Frank Rich, he remains an iconic figure, never afraid to gore “sacred cows.” Thompson deeply believed that writing could make a difference and change things.

While Gibney shaped the screen story, every word in the docu springs from the typewriters of Thompson. Those words are given life by Johnny Depp, the actor who shadowed Thompsons move for the screen version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and who financed Thompsons spectacular funeral (photographed for this film) in which the doctors ashes were fired from a rocket launcher mounted with a two-thumbed fist whose palm held a giant peyote button.

A two-year effort, “Gonzo” was produced by Gibney; Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair; the indie producing team of Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente; Eva Orner and Alison Ellwood, the creative editor who was also Gibneys collaborator on Enron. The films Director of Photography was Maryse Alberti.

“Gonzo” benefits from the cooperation of Thompsons friends, family and estate: Gibney had access to hundreds of photographs and over 200 hours of audiotapes, home movies and documentary footage of the man. In addition, the estate granted access to the work itself, allowing the film to quote from unpublished manuscripts, as well as the many letters, books and articles that Thompson produced.

Among others, Ralph Steadman, the artist whose drawings and paintings created a subversively iconic visual landscape for Thompsons words, also granted the filmmakers access to previously unpublished artworks and Polaroids.

List of Interview Subjects

Anita Thompson Thompsons second wife
Bob Braudis Sheriff, Pitkin County (Aspen)
Charles Perry Editor, Rolling Stone
Douglas Brinkley Literary Executor, Hunter Thompson estate
Gary Hart McGovern Campaign Manager
George McGovern US Senator/Presidential Candidate
George Stranahan Hunters friend and landlord
Jann Wenner Co-Founder/Publisher, Rolling Stone
Jimmy Buffett – Songwriter
Jimmy Carter United States President, 1976 – 1980
Juan Thompson Thompsons son (with Sandy Thompson)
Laila Nablusi Producer, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Pat Buchanan Nixon speechwriter
Pat Caddell McGovern Campaign Pollster
Ralph Steadman Artist/Illustrator
Sandy Thompson (now Sondi Wright) Thompsons first wife
Sonny Barger 1965 Hells Angels President, Oakland Chapter
Timothy Crouse Writer/Journalist, Author Boys on the Bus
Tom Wolfe Writer/Journalist