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(Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo is airing now on PBS stations nationwide. Check local listings…)

A hybrid documentary consisting of archival footage, animations and considerable re-enactments, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo tells the tale of Oscar Zeta Acosta, a 1960s/1970s counter-culture figure who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1974 while traveling in Mexico. The (loose) inspiration for author Hunter S. Thompson’s “Dr. Gonzo” in his 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Acosta – or General Zeta, as he also liked to be known – was a man of large appetites and ambitions who struggled to find his way in a world unkind to Chicanos. Born and raised in Riverbank, California, he tried many roles before settling on the one that would define him: himself.

Though Acosta was voted Junior-Class President in high school – at that point in his life, assimilation was the game – he soon thereafter soured on the American Dream, realizing that he would always be nothing more than a “brown buffalo” (an animal nobody really wants around). Though he always wanted to be a writer, he instead became first a Baptist preacher, then a lawyer, then a militant activist for Chicano causes, then finally a writer, and then a bit of an outcast as, with his outsize ego, he overstayed his welcome in most circles. The same cannot be said for this brisk movie, which at just under an hour – perfect for PBS, where it began airing in March of this year – never missteps (and certainly doesn’t overstay) in its evocation of good intentions gone wildly awry.

Director Phillip Rodriguez (Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle) edits the story with panache, each section highlighted by a flashy title and jaunty music. His crew of actors – including Jesse Celedon (Soledad) as Acosta and Jeff Harms (Ganzfeld) as Thompson – not only look enough like the characters to blend well with the archival stuff, but deliver convincing performances on their own. I loved the peppy feel of the film, the atmosphere plunging me head-on into the crazy psychedelic world of its subjects. Who needs drugs when you have good filmmaking?

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)


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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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