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"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" follows its subject down the path of subjectivity. The problem, of course, with this latest stab at documenting the life of wayward journalist Hunter Thompson, who killed himself in February 2005, is right there in the title. "Gonzo" was a category ascribed to Hunter Thompson's work that came to define the very subjective nature of his journalism. It's unclear if director Alex Gibney (who previously won an Oscar for his 2007 doc "Taxi to the Dark Side") recognizes the irony in trying to tell the story of a man who invented or twisted large parts of his narrative, but it's obvious that "Gonzo," like its subject, cannot escape the taint of subjectivity.
Thompson himself was probably the best field guide for his life, having kept copies of most of his letters, which were reprinted along with many of his stories. So the presence of Thompson is the best thing about "Gonzo," proof that some of this stuff actually happened. Gibney's documentary cobbles together a lot of unseen footage of Thompson -- at home, campaigning for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., even participating in the game show "To Tell the Truth" -- and we see the man who, in the midst of these adventures, seems to alternate between contempt and terror. The rest of the film is padded with interviews from the usual suspects: ex-wife Sondi Wright; artist pal and beer-label illustrator Ralph Steadman; politicos like George McGovern and Gary Hart; Rolling Stone Editor Jann Wenner, who gets to look like a swell guy even though it's pretty clear he used Thompson relentlessly through the years; and Johnny Depp, who after filming "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" became a sort of mouthpiece for Thompson; here he reads aloud Thompson's work, holding, pointlessly, a pistol during one recitation.
The film suffers from those kinds of affectations -- there are scattered throughout a couple of re-enactments and voiced-over camera pans. These all seem like Gibney is trying hard to capture the feel of one of those A&E specials on an obscure Midwestern murderer. If his goal is to unpack the legend of the man, further dramatizing his life doesn't seem like the way out.
Sometimes the balance is off. Too much time is spent on the minutiae of the 1972 presidential election, captured by Thompson in "Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72," too little on Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, Thompson's drug-guzzling companion in the Vegas odyssey. But all of it seeks to determine at what point Thompson lost his edge -- when his life-as-writer was eclipsed by his life-as-character. It offers no revelations on the subject, but the ride is nevertheless a good one. Mainly it serves to remind us that Hunter Thompson's talents were perpetually oscillated by, and perhaps dependent on, his being a prick. Maybe that's what identifies the true iconoclast -- a figure who changes the culture in ways that no one (not even the person himself) can ever exactly pinpoint. 3 Stars