Judge Gordon Sullivan rather likes fear and loathing, thank you.
"These are psychological detective stories attempting to uncover the mystery of why a celebrity died."
Hunter Stockton Thompson, the doomed poet of gonzo journalism, took his own life with a pistol on February 20, 2005. Despite decades of hard living, what ultimately did him in was the constant pain and limited mobility caused by two different hip surgeries and a poorly healed broken leg. He did not end, as many expected, by driving his famous red convertible off a sheer cliff, nor did he overdose on some newly discovered narcotic. No, the famous writer died alone in his study, his son and grandson just rooms away, and that final pistol shot fit like the last piece in the puzzle of Hunter S. Thompson's life. Despite the lack of a truly sensational story, the Final 24 series decided to take a look at the last day of Thompson's life, combining re-enactment footage with interviews of those who knew him. The result is an odd document, the corpse of Thompson's genius revived to sell DVDs, but even Thompson's reanimated self has something to offer longtime fans.
Because Hunter S. Thompson: His Final Hours is such a strange film, I'm going to break down my review by probable audience:
• The Ignorant. If you've never heard of Hunter S. Thompson before, this documentary will do very little to convince you of his genius or his import. His writing is featured only fitfully, and those who comment on his importance do so with the assumption that everyone knows why Hunter is famous, so there's not much hard evidence.
• The Initiate. If you're one of those who has just inherited a worn paperback of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Hunter S. Thompson's drug-fueled tale of decadence and depravity has changed your life utterly, then this is a surprisingly good place to start. Although much of the talking-head stuff might seem opaque without deeper knowledge of his other books, this documentary does a very effective job presenting Thompson's biography, from his upbringing in Louisville, through his rides with bikers and presidents, to his eventual decline and death. It largely skips over his military service, and like most documentaries wants to pretend that nothing of interest happened to the writer between 1982 and 2002, but for a 50-minute feature this is understandable. The show itself intercuts between Thompson's final 24 hours and his past, including interviews from relevant individuals in those time periods, including Hunter's first wife, and some of his editors at Rolling Stone.
• The Casual Fan. Honestly, if you own a couple of HST's books, like Fear and Loathing and The Great Shark Hunt and have done any reading at all of his numerous biographies, or even the eulogizes published after his death, then the small bits of new info contained here probably aren't going to be worth your time. This is a pretty straightforward rehash of the usual biographical details, but without as many of the famous commentators other documentaries have dug up. It's hard, as a casual fan, to lend credence to a documentary on Thompson that features no input from Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner, Juan Thompson, Anita Thompson, Douglas Brinkley, etc. I'm not saying that all of those individuals are shining examples of journalistic integrity and would ensure the accuracy of the film. Rather, they are the major figures in Thompson's story, and their absence, to the casual fan, might appear suspicious.
• The Geek. You're like me, and you've got all of Thompson's books, the numerous biographies, all the documentaries, and you celebrate every February 20th with a glass of Wild Turkey in Hunter's honor. For you, this is probably worth at least a rental. While none of the biographical stuff will be new, this is the first time I recall anyone getting such an extended response from Hunter's first wife Sandy on living with her husband during those years. In fact, I almost wish the entire documentary had instead been one long interview with her. The input from Rolling Stone editors is also likely to be interesting to hardcore fans, even if the stories they relate aren't surprising.
Now, on to the bad: this series is obviously trying to be sensational, and the most sensational aspect is obviously the use of re-enactments. I'm not entirely against the use of re-enactments, but the gentleman who plays the older Hunter looks like somebody's pedophile uncle when he's dressed in Thompson's costume, he has none of Thompson's energy, and he mumbles poorly. The attempts to recreate Fear and Loathing look like a bad film-school ripoff of Terry Gilliam's fantastic film of the book. Together, these re-enactments give the film a sleezy air, like robbing Thompson's grave to sell his bones. This isn't helped by the kind of "eh" looking video on this disc. It has a very smooth, shallow look to it, although there are no compression artifacts worth mentioning. The audio is a stereo track, keeping the dialogue and music balanced with ease. There are no extras on the disc.
Ironically, when Hunter S. Thompson took control of his life (and death) by shooting himself, he finally lost control completely of his image. Although the process had started with the Doonesbury strips decades ago, only after his death were the vultures allowed to circle and rip the flesh from his literary body. Some of the post-death cash-in attempts seem to be animated by a genuine desire for Thompson's spirit to live on, while others—like this Final 24 documentary—look like a straight cash grab. Although there are reasons for some fans to see this DVD, it will likely leave viewers with a bitter taste.
It's not my place to pass judgment on Thompson's suicide, but the jury is hung in the case against His Final Hours.
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