Hunter S. Thompson, the gun-toting, drug-addled, American cult literary figure and inventor of ‘Gonzo’ journalism, was a man always looking to challenge convention. A shot from the film shows Thompson driving a motorbike at excessive speeds as Johnny Depp reads out his words: “The Edge…there is no other way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over”. Thompson regularly pushed himself as close to the edge as he could, and finally went over, in a suicidal shot to the head on the 20th February 2005. For such a daring writer, why does Alex Gibney’s new movie about him play it so safe?
This relatively conventional take on the literary legend that has inspired so many wannabe journalists to write on drug and alcohol-fuelled rampages, offers no new or interesting take on the Gonzo myth. What it does offer, however, is a rich variety of material: rare, often unseen footage, audiotapes, interviews with his acquaintances, film clips from other movies (like Terry Gilliam’s film Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, starring Depp as the Thompson character Raoul Duke), and rare photographs. The sheer scope of material, however, in Gibney’s directorial hand, becomes confusing, as one tries to piece together a chronology, or even work out the source of the material through the vast offerings and time scale jumps. There is much to be said in favour of this safe approach- the 60’s/ 70’s soundtrack is superb, and Thompson’s audio-taped excerpts reveal the true nature of Gonzo in a way that Depp’s removed narration does not. One has always had the sneaking suspicion that Johnny Depp is a lightweight; anyone who has watched those pirate films will understand. His addition to the film is negligible; indeed, it casts a veil of triviality over the proceedings.
The point the movie does make is that it was the popularity of Gonzo that brought about its decline; like Kerouac and the Beat movement, at Gonzo’s peak, he was already a washed-out myth. The key to Gonzo is the presence of the writer at the centre of events, constantly spontaneous and self-referential, which does not allow for an objective identity. Thompson’s success as a political reporter in the 1972 campaign trail for Rolling Stone, was partially a result of his anonymity. So as the movie progresses, along with Thompson’s fame, his journalistic career begins to deteriorate. Moreover, the film’s emphasis on the 1972 election is not sufficiently well crafted to interest a non-specialist, and loses sight of the film’s subject. A strong theme of the film, and possibly its best strand, is the focus on that elusive American dream which underpins so much of American literature and politics. The film makes parallels between the politics that Thompson covered and the Bush presidency, in a manner which is not profound and has a slight smell of the cheap shot.
The film should have ended on the extraordinary statement from Thompson’s first wife, a woman of the utmost dignity, who describes his suicide as a cowardly act, rather than the honourable one that others had built it up to be. Alas it didn’t. Any film about the founder of Gonzo could not fail to be watchable. Sadly this is no more than that.