The life of Dr. Hunter S Thompson was suitably erratic and full of chaos to ensure that making a down the line documentary about his life, stage after stage, was never on the cards, but this offering from director Alex Gibney manages to bridge a careful divide between blurry confusion about a man that is near on impossible to pin down, and factual accounts of a man who was perhaps one of the best writers of his generation.
Voiced by Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the film version of his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this documentary is an intimate look at a man whose life was as fascinating as his writing, but for those in the audience who are not as familiar as they might be with Thompson, who invented the so-called Gonzo style of journalism, this film may drag a little as it descends into reverential praise for this anti-establishment figure.
Gibneys portrait is clearly a fond one, but it is also one which tends to pander to the sad truth that for Thompson, the work has often been overshadowed by the man, which is little wonder given that the Gonzo style of journalism places the author at the centre of the piece as a sort of caricature observer. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the revelation that Thompson felt both repelled and compelled by the Uncle Duke version of himself in Garry Trudeaus Doonesbury comic strips.
Hunter lived fast, and died when he committed a long-promised suicide in 2005, an act which the film suggests, was inextricably linked with his exhaustion and despair regarding the continual failures of his political ideals. One can only wonder what would have happened if he had stuck around to be in the crowd shouting Yes, we can!. Thompsons final act is one which will never be fully comprehensible, despite the fact that he had made no secret during his lifetime that this would be how his story would conclude. The film passes over the matter, perhaps wisely, in a fairly cold and impassioned manner.
Home video footage, interview clips, and other found materials piece together a sketchy drawing of a larger than life figure, and are punctuated with honest, warm accounts of the man himself from an impressive collection of eye witnesses, including both of his wives, artist Ralph Steadman, presidential candidate George McGovern, Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner and an aging biker, whose contentious relationship with Thompson stems from the writers first work of real note, Hells Angels, a revelatory account of a year spent infiltrating the notorious biker gang.
Gibneys film is certainly well-judged and sensitively presented, despite a tendency to glorify the persona which, video footage indicates, was a tendency which haunted him throughout his career, flattering his impressive ego while dictating behaviour patterns which he felt unable to escape from. There are no answers here about who this man really was, but there is an entertaining film which provides a warm tribute to a great mind.