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

August 5, 2008

He was decades past his “gonzo” glory days, well into a lifetime of substance abuse and just a couple of years away from the moment he would take his own life with the final evidence of what he liked to call “my gun problem.”

But here’s what Hunter S. Thompson wrote for ESPN.com the morning of Sept. 11, 2001:

“It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides,” Thompson typed, predicting rollbacks in civil liberties and assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan and American freedom.

It was cynical, bitter, biting and prescient, classic Thompson. And it is, fittingly, one of the first things Johnny Depp narrates in the terrific new documentary, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” This film, plainly a labor of love by the Oscar-winning director of “Taxi to the Dark Side,” captures much of the style, passion, prose and pose of Thompson, the paranoid, pill-popping gun nut who injected himself into the stories he was sent to cover and who became a character in his own fevered narrative of America during the ’60s, ’70s and beyond.

A documentary (this is not the first) about him might seem redundant, seeing as how Garry Trudeau immortalized him as the ever-hallucinating con man Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, and Bill Murray (a dead-on impersonation) and Johnny Depp both slurred and cigarette-holdered him in paranoid stoner-comedies about his travels _ “Where the Buffalo Roam” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

But filmmaker Alex Gibney had access to those who knew the guy, the famous, the infamous and the obscure, and he paints a picture of a serious journalist who saw himself documenting “the death of the American Dream” who became a caricature of his own persona, a self-absorbed paranoid who equated excess with success.

Thompson trained himself to write by copying “The Great Gatsby,” line for line, over and over again, became famous writing about the Hell’s Angels, who rode into West Coast life “like Genghis Khan on an iron horse,” and became a legend working for Rolling Stone, covering (not really) the Super Bowl, taking center stage in the 1972 presidential campaign.

George McGovern recalls Thompson’s coverage boosting his campaign, and the ways the writer turned on him. Pat Buchanan chuckles over the furious verbal salvos Thompson hurled at the Nixon White House Buchanan served in.

He was mercurial, they all say, struggling with mood swings that couldn’t have been helped by his massive appetite for mind-altering substances.

Thompson could be brilliant, but he was also “infantile” (Gary Hart) and “cruel” (his ex-wife, Sandra).

The film about him is trippy and zippy, though it leaves out as many telling details as it includes _ Thompson’s troubles with the law, his youthful coverage of the Ernest Hemingway suicide that led to his stealing Papa H’s elk antlers, how he became a “Dr.”

But as that opening 9/11 narration reminds us, nobody bit off pieces of the American experience and spat them back at us as well. As a man, he may have been worth fearing “and loathing.” As a writer, stylist, observer and participant in the “Me” decades of the American Century, Hunter S. Thompson stands alone, aviator sunglasses glinting in the setting sun, pistols and peyote buttons, pronouns and paragraphs at the ready.

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‘GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON’

Five of five stars

Cast: Johnny Depp, Jann Wenner, Jimmy Buffett, Patrick Buchanan, George McGovern, many others, appearing as themselves.

Director: Alex Gibney.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

Industry rating: R for drug and sexual content, language and some nudity.

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(c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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