Three years ago I was in a hotel room in Salt Lake City when it began to sink in that Hunter S. Thompson had blown his brains out. I remember all the cable news channels running coverage: Fox News had a smarmy obit reel that portrayed Thompson as a mere drugged-out rabble-rouser (a few years later, the channel would run a similar memorial for Kurt Vonnegut), while some other channel reran an interview he'd done shortly before his death—he looked weary and slack, and he sounded like a grunting, mumbly shadow of his former self. Perhaps the least surprising thing about Thompson's suicide, other than its method, was that it happened. But still, it was stuff like having his name struck from the Rolling Stone masthead—regardless of how symbolic his job designation of manning the "National Affairs Desk" had become—that hit hard.
Thompson's death is assumed going into Alex Gibney's documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Gibney—who recently helmed Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—tries, and largely succeeds, to chart the curve of Thompson's life and the impact of his words. Gonzo's core is the interviews with the usual suspects: Thompson's wives, his son, his editors, and Ralph Steadman. But we also hear from Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, a still-pissed Hells Angel, Jimmy Buffett, Pat Buchanan, and Tom Wolfe, the last of whom strikingly compares Thompson to Mark Twain. (Indeed, the only major player in Thompson's life who seems absent is arch-villain Richard Nixon, which I suppose can be forgiven.)
Thompson's pal Johnny Depp also shows up. He's credited as "narrator," but what he does is far more interesting: Toning down his cartoony imitation of Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp reads from Thompson's work throughout the film—sometimes while holding what we can only assume is one of Thompson's handguns—bringing Thompson's deft lyricism and righteous spirit to Gonzo. These moments are the strongest in the film, even making up for Gibney's occasionally cheesy visual tricks, though it's also a trip to see all the rare footage on display: old interviews, Thompson's bizarre appearance on '60s game show To Tell the Truth, a campaign ad from when Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen. ("Hunter represents something wholly alien to the other candidates for sheriff: ideas," the narration goes, over shots of Thompson riding his motorcycle. "And a sympathy toward the young, generous, grass-oriented society which is making the only serious effort to face the technological nightmare we have created.")
But what's perhaps most appreciated and unexpected throughout is the candor with which Gibney treats his respected subject: Thompson was a genius, yes, and he changed journalism and politics for the better, yet Gibney doesn't shy away from showing that Thompson could also be an asshole, and that he let his own myth get the better of him, and that his writing went downhill once Thompson stopped being himself and started being a caricature of himself.
Still—from the horror of the '68 Chicago riots to the euphoric shooting of Thompson's ashes out of a colossal Gonzo fist—Gibney scrapes through Thompson's writing, history, and friends to assemble an impressively thorough and affecting portrait of a man who, at one crucial point in time, was one of the best writers America had, not to mention a writer that only America could have produced. Years after his death, it still feels strange that Thompson is gone, but for a few hours at least, Gonzo reminds us what it was like when he was still around.