The Dark Knight & Gonzo

The Dark Knight & Gonzo featured image

by Marc Glassman.

The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan, director, co-producer and co-script w/Jonathan Nolan; Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, music; Wally Pfister, cinematography. Starring: Christian Bale (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent/Two Face), Gary Oldman (Lt. James Gordon), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Michael Caine (Alfred), Eric Roberts (Sal Maroni), Chin Han (Lau).

Gonzo: the life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Alex Gibney, director, producer and script. Additional writings by Hunter Thompson. Feature documentary w/Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Sonny Barger, Tom Wolfe, Sondi Wright, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern, Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner, Tim Crouse, Juan Thompson, Oscar Acosta, Jimmy Buffett, Gary Hart, Anita Thompson.

The Dark Knight

When a film opens in over 4, 300 theatres across North America plus IMAX cinemas and grosses over $2 million in advance ticket sales before it even has one paid screening, what can you say? Batman is back, bigger and better than ever—that just about sums it up.

It’s hard not to join the chorus of fevered acolytes who are already singing the praises of The Dark Knight. This film delivers thrills a plenty but never forgets its serious purpose: to explore the meaning of evil. Yep, this Knight is philosophical but he always remembers how to blow things up “real good.”

So what’s not to love?

The casting in The Dark Knight is well nigh perfect. Christian Bale, an actor who has played dark parts in films like The Machinist and American Psycho, may be the best possible Batman. Like Sean Connery and Daniel Craig as James Bond, he has gifts far beyond the ken of regular action heroes but he also has the requisite good looks and gravitas to play his expected part to perfection. The same is true for those expert scene-stealers, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, back again as butler Alfred and inventor/Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox, Batman’s aging but brilliant support team.

Speaking of scene-stealers, this film boasts the ultimate one: Heath Ledger in his exceptional swansong as The Joker. In what has to be the most overly hyped character role of the year, Ledger achieves the impossible, creating a fully realized stomach-churning psychopath, in absolute, chilling detail. Ledger gives us the smiling, decadent face and form of evil in a performance that is worthy of the Oscar nomination that it will undoubtedly receive.

No one matches Ledger but Aaron Eckhart certainly gives a superb accounting for himself as District Attorney Harvey Dent, the White Knight of Gotham, who is turned into a figure of monstrous evil through the hands and twisted psychology of the Joker. When Dent loses feisty Rachel, the girl of his dreams—and Batman’s—he is fodder for Ledger, who turns the now disfigured crusading lawyer into Two-Face, a bizarre and grotesque monster.

And, here is where the film falters. In Two-Face/Harvey Dent, we are expected to see the struggle between good and evil that Batman always wins and the Joker always loses. But it doesn’t work—the powerful symbolism of the gruesome Two-Face, half of his handsome face horribly burned into a twisted misshapen form, is lost in the ever-more complex pulp-fiction narrative.

There are lots to admire in The Dark Knight—fine acting, terrific action scenes and a genuine attempt by its makers to make more of this film than “just” another blockbuster. The film will be, deservedly, the hit of the summer and, probably, the year. If it doesn’t quite succeed as a work of art, will anyone care—except for a few fussy critics and, one suspects, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale?

Gonzo: the life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson lived a classic American life—tough, romantic and outside the mainstream. As a young daredevil journalist, he met the Hell’s Angels, the sexiest and scariest motorcycle gang in the world, and rode with them for a year. After a couple of his erstwhile pals beat him up, Thompson turned his wild ride into a best selling book. And so, a legend was born—or rather, a man began to mythologize himself.

In Gonzo, Oscar winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) examines the life of Thompson, a man who broke the rules—and who probably broke himself in the process. Doctor Thompson—the title was honorific and self-proclaimed—was a figure of the ‘60s, a time when outlaws were deified. Riding the acclaim of Hell’s Angels, Thompson hooked up with Rolling Stone, then the hippest counter-cultural magazine in the US. Editor Jann Wenner, who is extensively interviewed in the film, saw the possibilities in Thompson, encouraging him to write at length about exciting, personal, topics.

Famously, Thompson went to Las Vegas, with an old Chicano pal, in pursuit of the American Dream. Allowed to write in a prose style that mixed reportage with elaborate fantasies, conflating the two so that they seemed indivisible, Thompson created his finest work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney evokes that astonishing book through segments from Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation, which starred Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. (Depp also reads passages from Thompson’s books and articles throughout the film, offering continuity to Gibney’s somewhat twisted tale.)

After unsuccessfully running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, then a hippie haven that was nearly equally divided between “long-hairs” and the old-fashioned moral majority, Thompson decided to look at politics on a national level. He spent 1972 covering the Presidential election, in a bizarre hallucinatory style that curiously mirrored the crazy reality of the American political scene of the time. Incumbent Republican Richard Nixon won in one the biggest landslides in American federal politics, only to be undone within a year by the Watergate scandal that proved his victory was created, in part, by “dirty tricks.” In Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, the soon-to-be-ousted Nixon is evoked as a werewolf prowling the terrain of Washington. And this was before the revelations of Watergate!

The writing that Thompson had created between 1967 and 1972 was given the tile of “gonzo.” Hunter Thompson had created a persona in which his drug taking and amazing drinking bouts were seen as responses—arguably moral ones—to the insanity that seemed to be gripping an America enmeshed in a divisive war in Vietnam. With hippies and blacks and Chicanos railing for their voices to be heard in the midst of a cruel conservative backlash against the freedoms won in the ‘60s, Thompson was seen as a brilliant satirist, embodying the voices of the disenfranchised in a land marred by hypocrisy, greed and violence.

But, just as he hit his peak, things began to go awry for Thompson. As chronicled by Gibney through the voices of his ex-wife Sondi, his friend and artistic boon companion Ralph Steadman, Wenner and archival footage of Thompson himself, the man became unhinged by his success. An adoring public embraced Thompson, encouraging him to booze and binge all too frequently. The astute journalist had become a celebrity, no longer capable of quietly entering a room to assess a scene. Now, he was the scene—as famous as the figures he was supposed to profile or satirize.

After blowing a major assignment in Zaire, where he came back with nothing from the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Thompson’s career went downhill. He could still write the occasional great piece—arguably, his response to 9/11 was one of his best ever—but too much of what he wrote after 1976 was tired and repetitive. In the end, Thompson took his own life, Hemingway-style, with a bullet to the brain.

Gonzo captures an American artist who was trapped by his nation’s Dream of greatness. One of the revelations in Gibney’s film is that Thompson learned to write with style by typing out Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby several times. It was Fitzgerald who famously said that “in America, there are no second acts.” Surely that was the case with Thompson.

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