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Director: Alex Gibney; Release date: 19 December

The sense of peace in the opening of this documentary, describing a semi-retired and uninspired Hunter S Thompson, is broken as Hunter's own words describe the clash of fanaticisms unleashed by the 9/11 attacks.

An energetic tumble of news footage lambasts the chaotic violence of the imperial US, before a TV obituary appears from 2005 with the news that Hunter S Thompson has shot himself dead.

Thus ended the life of a writer whose fame came through his unique approach to journalism. In his 1965 study of the Hell's Angels - and especially in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 - Thompson practiced a participatory method of journalism: taking sides, filtering reality through the counter-cultural "freak society" of music, political activism and drugs. Christened "gonzo" journalism, Hunter's rich descriptions of his own uncontrolled, druggy impulsiveness takes aim through caricature and commentary at society as he found it.

While this working method may be recognised by few staff writers at this magazine, Hunter's freak flag was always politically oppositional. Hunter ran for sheriff in Aspen in 1970, his hippy campaign expressing in humour and horror that the law and order sanctified by straight society was "ten times worse than anything I saw the Hell's Angels do. The American dream was clubbing itself to death."

His journalism found a character of unique hatefulness in President Richard Nixon, "a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal...America's answer to the mysterious Mr Hyde, [Nixon] speaks to the werewolf in us on nights when the moon comes too close...some people will say that words like scum are wrong for objective journalism, and they are right, but they miss the point...to understand some phenomena you have to get subjective".

Hunter's work is read by Johnny Depp, who brings alive its dynamic encounter between reality and fantasy. The film's cascade of analysis and anecdote, told through a massive archive of news footage, home movies, interviews and fictional film, provides a visual accompaniment to Hunter's inimitable writing style. It emphasises key aspects of his work: his savage engagement with the American dream, his eventual cartoonish enslavement to his own media image and his dismay at the similarities between the presidencies of Nixon and Bush.

While this captures the public aspects of Hunter and his work, key questions remain that prevent a really intimate portrait of the man. What brought an intelligent, sensitive young man from the poor part of town to a gonzo observation of the Hell's Angels? What did he do with the last 30 years of his life? What, for that matter, was he a doctor of? However, as a guide to a counter-cultural icon at his creative peak, this exciting documentary could hardly be bettered.