If Michael Moore is American documentary’s master of muckraking, then Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney is quickly emerging as documentary’s premier journalist. He directed the Oscar-nominated Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room in 2005 and served as executive producer for the Iraq war documentary No End In Sight, which competed against his own film about torture, Taxi to the Dark Side, for the 2008 Best Documentary Oscar. Taxi won. His latest project is a rich portrait of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson.
How did you first come into contact with Hunter S Thompson’s work?
College. I read the two big books [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail]. They both floored me. I read them in a red hot heat. The voice was so original. It was so fresh and fun—and sometimes angry and very funny. I wouldn’t say that I was constantly reading Hunter in the intervening years, but I certainly kept aware of him and his gonzo character and I was amused by the Doonesbury characterization of him. Certainly I wasn’t thinking enough about the relationship between his work and mine when I first read him. But when [the other filmmakers working on Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S Thompson and I] were thinking about how to make the movie, it certainly did occur to me; there’s an element of fun and playfulness and a willingness to expand and extend the form in his work.
What surprised you as you delved into Hunter’s mind?
It was intoxicating and fun. But also—maybe because I was working on Taxi at the same time—I ended up digging deeper into the darker side of Hunter’s mind than I thought. I didn’t know that he had this other side to him that could be quite cruel. It’s not surprising that there was this deep-seeded anger in him because that’s often the well from which comedians draw.
The struggle between good and evil seems to be a recurrent theme in your films.
Remember that Fox show, When Good Pets Go Bad? I’m interested in when good men, or good women, go bad—that sense of corruption, self-deception and the abuse of power. It usually makes for a pretty dramatic film. But it also happens to be about real life. The powerful tend to try to devour the powerless. It just seems to be their nature.
How do you feel about the responsibility of being a documentarian, of defining a person or an important event?
I think you have to take that responsibility very seriously. I reckoned with a lot in Taxi, in terms of my attitudes toward the soldiers—the guys that actually beat young Dilawar to death. There was a cut of the film where I’d become so sympathetic to them that I’d clearly gone overboard. Someone pointed it out at a test screening and they were right—they were dead right. Because, as nice as they were—and I found them to be really nice guys—it was a fact that they had beat this young man—who weighed a fraction of what they did—to death. So we put back in a detail about how [military police officer] Willie Brand kneed this one guy so often with one leg that he had to switch legs because his first leg got tired. That’s kind of a brutal detail, but it’s a necessary one to remind people of the fact that, yes, we’re sympathetic to these guys, but let’s not forget what they’ve done.
I wonder if Hunter’s sense of optimism might have been rekindled by Obama—who reminds many of Robert Kennedy, who Hunter greatly admired.
I think so. I think Hunter would have been a big Obama fan. I don’t know if Hunter could have gotten himself out of his own personal funk; but I think it’s pretty easy to predict that he would have been fully behind Obama. Because [Obama] represents that idealistic strain of the American character.
And Obama has gotten so many young people involved in the political process, which Hunter did in his own run for sheriff in Aspen. That part of Hunter’s story—with his obscenity-laced manifesto that called for legal drugs and ripping out the streets—is just crazy.
It is crazy. How close he came, and how into it he was. There was that great sense of idealism and possibility. And, also, it’s Hunter playing a role beyond the observer role. He was saying, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to get involved.’ It was a joke at first—but then he came so close to winning.
It’s clear through the films that you’ve chosen to do that you have a desire to protect a certain vision of America. What’s your sense of this country’s prospects right now?
Well, we’re poised now between this essential duality that Hunter really spotted: between a sense of higher ideal and a kind of hunkering down and defending ourselves—in some primordial way—against unknown fears, be they terrorists or immigrants. The question is: What will we embrace? We’re right on the fence now, I think.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney and written by Alex Gibney with texts by Hunter S Thompson
With Hunter S Thompson, Pat Buchanan,
Jimmy Carter and Johnny Depp
The Screen, 118 min., R