Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

A documentary by Alex Gibney. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, July 18, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

The line between covering news and making it was pummelled, tugged, and otherwise eradicated by Hunter S. Thompson, giving rise to the gonzo in the title of this exemplary doc from Alex Gibney, who brought us Taxi to the Dark Side just a few war-torn months ago.

Crucially, we learn about the old-school sweat that went into making Thompson a first-rate writer. Like a jazzman practising scales, the future icon started out by retyping The Great Gatsby so he could study its rhythms. (Or so he said.) Later, he rode with the Hell’s Angels for a year, leading to a bestselling breakthrough in embedded journalism. He then shot to national fame with his “Fear and Loathing” pieces in Rolling Stone—screeds that read like travelogues into his drug-addled mind while scorching sociopolitical earth wherever he went.

Unfortunately, the addling took over and—after a spectacular failure when assigned to cover the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali—he put more work into becoming “a walking monument to misbehaviour”, as one newsman elegiacally put it, than into being any kind of reporter.

Gibney reconstructs the saga with masses of archival footage mixed with testimony from family and friends, including illustrator counterpart Ralph Steadman, and bits of text read by Johnny Depp, who previously played Thompson on-screen. The best discovery is a snippet from ’60s quiz show To Tell the Truth, in which “Will the real Hunter Thompson please stand up?” was asked but never fully answered, in life or since his 2004 suicide. He thought that act was brave, apparently, but for a writer, the best place to put courage is on the page.

Read more: Documentary showcases Hunter S. Thompson