Hunter S. Thompson wasn't just a great storyteller; he was a great story himself, partly because he became his stories. As inventor of the "gonzo" style of journalism -- with its rampant passion for drug-fueled first-person narrative that blended fact and fiction -- Thompson wrote like he lived.
Fact and fiction blur so much when it comes to Thompson that a documentary about his life and times could prove a daunting challenge. In lesser hands, his biography might drown in idolatry, but director Alex Gibney has proved in the past that he's up for the task. Gibney's the man who explained a complicated corporate meltdown in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and traced a trail of torture in last year's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side.
But this time, his subject is the definition of an iconoclast. Gibney's unlimited access and sense of objectivity allow him to place Thompson in his proper historical context, while offering a candid glimpse behind his persona. He follows Thompson's life in fairly conventional fashion, starting with a brief overview of his impact on journalism and pop culture before going through the chronological report. The filmmaker's sourcing is impeccable, as family, colleagues, friends and even enemies recount Thompson's misadventures as reported in Rolling Stone.
It was this reporting that brought him great fame – his unsuccessful run for sheriff in his home, Aspen, Colo., in "The Battle of Aspen"; the hallucinatory odyssey of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; his days embedded with America's most infamous biker gang in Hell's Angels; and the pivotal presidential run in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972.
Gibney possesses that rare documentarian's gift of matching technique to subject matter. Montage images entrance but never overwhelm the viewer. Just when it feels like we're being pulled down the rabbit hole of Thompson's booze guzzling, coke sniffing, pill popping and acid dropping, Gibney pulls us right back up. He dances that tricky dance of interview and archive, of storytelling and visual style, and the result would be magical if we hadn't already seen so many iconic images from the 1960s.
We hear early and often from Thompson's wife, Sondi Wright, who divulges their relationship's most personal details – a generous soul with a wandering eye. We also hear from the politicians he helped elevate, most notably failed 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern and former President Jimmy Carter.
Gibney's overemphasis on the 1972 election, and Thompson's coverage thereof, is one of the film's few marked flaws. But it also offers the chance to hear surprisingly objective words from former Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan, who opines, "There was no one quite like Hunter. [His writing] was on the edge, and it was very funny."
The most entertaining source is actor Johnny Depp, who, after playing Thompson in Terry Gilliam's brilliant movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, became a close friend. He's seen and heard quoting from Thompson's writings, often cradling a handgun.
A self-confessed gun nut, Thompson was candid about his suicidal tendencies, so few were surprised when he finally pulled the trigger on himself in 2005. Reading between the lines of Gibney's film, one can imagine that Thompson's life was one long downward spiral that started with the hope and promise of the 1960s and kept heading south: Vietnam, the assassinations, Nixon, Watergate and so on. There's a suggestion that John Kerry's loss to George W. Bush in 2004 was more than he could take.
Competing with, or paralleling, this notion is the observation that Thompson became consumed by his own ego and fame. Maybe the biggest thing Hunter S. Thompson feared and loathed was himself.