ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Gonzo @ the Derby (2016)

Directed by Michael D. Ratner

I must admit to having a very limited knowledge of not just who Hunter S. Thompson was, but more specifically a limited knowledge of his works. I know he is an infamous journalist, whose “gonzo” style was not just self-inclusive but somewhat revolutionary and representative of the counter-cultural times in which he rose to fame. By the accounts of this new 30 for 30 short from director Michael D. Ratner, and the quick Google search I conducted concerning the article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, published in 1970 on the heels of an assignment Hunter S. Thompson had to cover the Kentucky Derby, I can discern that Thompson’s famous style of writing and journalism finds its origin with this article which tells of not just the Kentucky Derby that year, but Thompson’s and illustrator Ralph Steadman’s involvement in the decadent and depraved proceedings of the drunken partying which most notably takes place in the infield lawn at Churchill Downs.

Michael D. Ratner’s film, Gonzo @ the Derby, covers this story with a mix of talking head interviews, which includes Thompson’s former publisher, Sean Penn, and his longtime collaborator/illustrator Ralph Steadman, and a unique brand of animation in the style fo Gonzo. This animation is certainly reminiscent of the same device used on the last 30 for 30 short, When the King Held Court, and it helps paint the picture for a past lost in the half-truth, half-fiction, half-fantasy words of Thompson’s account of the Kentucky Derby. The idea of immersive journalism in which the reporter becomes involved and therefore no longer objective to the subject which they are covering, and in most cases becomes a major part of the story themselves is a bit like gleaning the truth from a story and simply communicating that truth in a more entertaining and effective manner than most journalism.

I studied a little bit of journalism in college, and some would likely call the Gonzo style unfaithful to the spirit of reporting and the profession of journalism, but when taken for what it is, which is entertainment value and the skepticism that not everything reported is necessarily true, Gonzo journalism is an effective way to reach the readership in a provocative way. The best moment in this film actually comes at the end, which hits the point of not just the whole film but the whole movement as well. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance fashion, Ralph Steadman is told by Ratner that, as the only other person who experienced that weekend at the Kentucky Derby with Hunter S. Thompson, he is the only person who knows the difference between the story and the reality. Steadman’s response was simply, “Or I’ve forgotten. You know, that’s the point.”

*** – Good

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