Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney. Narrated by Johnny Depp. 118 min. Rating N/A.

An exciting new movie opened last week about a man trapped by his public persona — a cantankerous hero with extraordinary talents, a surly streak, a drinking problem and a knack for leaving destruction in his path.

Will Smith? Hancock? Huh? Who’s talking about Hancock? I’m referring, of course, to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Alex Gibney’s new documentary about the creator of “gonzo journalism,” who committed suicide in 2005. Gonzo runs two hours, but, thanks to Gibney and his contributors, it never feels overlong.

It would be impossible to overestimate the influence Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and his other work had on a generation of journalists. The influence may have not always been a positive thing — young writers tended to try to sound like Thompson rather than project their own voices as strongly — but it was undeniable and sometimes liberating.

Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) takes a relatively straightforward, chronological approach, whipping through the early biographical details before slowing down to tell us about Thompson’s first career breakthrough, with the book Hell’s Angels. He includes footage of Thompson as a guest on the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth, flanked by two obvious actors, made up to fit some TV producer’s notion of bikers. (Who knew?) It’s as surreal as anything in his later work.

After Hell’s Angels came his campaign for sheriff of Aspen County and his famous piece for Scanlan’s about the Kentucky Derby — his first truly gonzo story, and the first he did with illustrator Ralph Steadman. A year later, in 1971, gonzo came to its greatest fruition with Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson, under both his own name and as Raoul Duke, forged the persona he would never escape. (Thompson was later pissed when Garry Trudeau appropriated his autobiographical character for Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke, which raises all kinds of interesting issues about whether public figures “own” the “rights” to themselves and about the extent to which the protagonist of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is Thompson himself or a fictional creation.)

Thompson’s political concerns led to Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a collection of his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 election, which George McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz famously called “the most accurate and least factual account of the campaign.” Among the talking heads in Gibney’s film are McGovern, Gary Hart, Jimmy Carter, pollster Pat Caddell and even — gulp! — Pat Buchanan. Many of us first heard of Buchanan through a Thompson dispatch, in which he tips the writer off to the true (unbelievably cynical) meaning of Nixon’s decision to retain Agnew as his running mate.

Also on hand are both of Thompson’s wives, his son, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, Steadman, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Buffet and literary executor Douglas Brinkley. Johnny Depp, who portrayed him in Terry Gilliam’s film version of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, acts as Thompson’s voice, reading from his works in voiceover with occasional appearances onscreen. (The film doesn’t mention that Depp also footed the bill for the extravagant final sendoff celebration Thompson had designed for himself years earlier.)

Gibney uses a fair amount of footage from Gilliam’s film, as well as from three films shot by Wayne Ewing (including Breakfast with Hunter, which was released theatrically in 2003). But more fascinating is his incorporation of real bits of rare source material, such as the original audiotape Thompson and companion Oscar Zeta Acosta made while “searching for the American Dream” in Las Vegas (later transcribed in Fear & Loathing).

At times, it is hard to tell where Thompson’s voice ends and Depp’s begins or to discern the lines between the documentary footage and fictional recreations (mostly from the Gilliam film), which is a case of form echoing the film’s themes. That is, during the last three decades of Thompson’s life, his focus seems to have been shattered by a blurring between his personas — public and private, fictional and real. He had an image to live up to; he became, as Wolfe puts it, “trapped in gonzo.” Most poignantly, Thompson says that, when appearing at colleges, “I’m not sure who to be: Duke or Thompson … I don’t know which one they hired.”