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July 15, 2008

FILM Reviews

‘Gonzo’ is honest, brutal


(Starring Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Gary Hart, Sondi Wright, Anita Thompson, Jann Wenner and George McGovern. Directed by Alex Gibney. Rated R; 1:20. Opens Friday, July 18, at Baxter Avenue Theatres. LEO Report Card: A-)


Hunter S. Thompson needed out twice in his life, and both times he surrendered fully to the darkness. The first time was when Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972, crushing the antiwar Democrat George McGovern, a man Thompson lionized in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” 

The second time was nearly 30 years later, when George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000. Thompson sensed then that he was about to relive a nightmare he’d tried in vain to put down — the sick, suffering animal of Nixon in the 1970s. Then, instead of parlaying the momentum of “Hell’s Angels,” the two “Fear and Loathing” books and his seminal countercultural status into a new literary and journalistic high, Thompson receded into self-caricature, being now the parody of a drug-addled fun hog with too much money and notoriety, an image that had already begun to hamper serious discussion of his work. He recognized that he was perceived essentially as two characters — Thompson and Raoul Duke — and he knew one was overtaking the other. 

When Bush was reelected in 2004, Thompson gave up. He stopped writing. No more fun. He shot himself in the head a month after Bush began his second term. 

As even his most casual fans will sense after watching the new documentary “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” both a rousing tribute and act of sympathy to a tragic figure from director Alex Gibney, now would’ve been a good time for the Louisville-born Doc of yore: As the country peers out over the parapets of the Bush administration’s extreme greed and deliberate injustice, the last thing we need is another wash in the mainstream of Washington politics and the journalism that promotes it. 

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures: “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” starts Friday at Baxter Avenue Theatres.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures: “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” starts Friday at Baxter Avenue Theatres.

The creator — and sole practitioner — of gonzo journalism saw politics as an all-or-nothing game, says Gary Hart, McGovern’s campaign manager, in the film. During those turbulent years, when it seemed another Nixon term would’ve crushed anyone with the kind of wild-eyed hope for America’s great promise that permeated Thompson’s work, he couldn’t permit an olive branch to the old guard like Tom Eagleton, the ill-conceived vice presidential choice of the McGovern campaign. Eagleton, it was quickly revealed, had received shock treatments years before. It had been McGovern’s aw-shucks sort of honesty and the change inherent to that that attracted Thompson in the first place. Now he felt betrayed, and he never got over that; he chastised McGovern, calling it a crucial mistake that doomed the election. 

What is often ignored in any documentary work about Thompson is the question of when he became irrelevant. He continued writing almost until the end, but much of what he produced — beginning with 1983’s “The Curse of Lono” — was repetitive, unfocused and unfunny. Credit Gibney for addressing this at the outset, and following through with a superb cast of interviewees speaking about the man, his work and the dangerous intersection of the two. It is in this brutal sort of honesty — the lasting impression, if anything, of the Good Doctor’s work — that the film stays most true to its subject. —Stephen George



Is torture just ‘Standard

Operating Procedure’?

(Starring Joshua Feinman, Zhubin Rahbar, Merry Grissom, Cyrus King and Sarah Denning. Directed by Errol Morris. Rated R; 1:56. LEO Report Card: A-)


Errol Morris has always been a documentary filmmaker specializing in philosophical, sometimes poetic movies, but of late, he’s also been drawn to controversial characters. His last film, “The Fog of War,” was about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, orchestrator of the Vietnam War and a pariah since he was fired in 1968. 

In “Standard Operating Procedure,” Morris scored interviews with most of the major players in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal. Again, he has the gall to show his subjects (including notorious Kentuckian Lynndie England) as complex, conflicted and sometimes sympathetic people.  

The conceit of the film is that most of us don’t really know what was happening in those photos, even though they seem so cut-and-dry. The military has portrayed the soldiers as out-of-control, poorly disciplined individuals with no ties to official Pentagon policy. Journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in “Chain of Command” that most of the photos show them “softening up” prisoners, which was directly encouraged by government interrogators.  

Naturally, Morris straddles the line between the two interpretations. These soldiers were crueler than they were asked to be, but only marginally. And at least in their minds, the people they abused were deserving.  

Although “Procedure” gives us glimpses into the truth behind the photographic facades, most of the film is unconcerned with finding concrete answers; in fact, it’s about how elusive concrete answers really are. Instead, Morris posits his usual selection of unanswerable questions: Can we trust our eyes? Can any photograph really speak for itself? Do we really know what’s happening in Iraq?

In posing these questions, he elevates the discussion about Iraq, much in the way “Apocalypse Now” did for Vietnam. And while this is far from the best piece of journalism about Iraq, it’s probably the best piece of art about it. —Alan Abbott