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A Guide to Alex Gibney: Breaking Down the Acclaimed Documentarian's Filmography

Photo of Shipra Gupta By Shipra Gupta | Indiewire August 4, 2014 at 2:38PM

Alex Gibney makes a lot of documentaries. His latest, "Finding Fela," opened strong in limited release this past weekend. But there's a lot more where that came from. To celebrate Gibney's latest success, here's a breakdown of his output to date.
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Money and Politics

"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" (2010)
While the exploits of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff are certainly at the center of Gibney’s film, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” actually provides a comprehensive account of the right of the modern right: It begins in the early eighties with young, conservative voices such as Abramoff -- who, at the time, was an extremely active member of the College Republicans, and eventually ascended to the role of the party's National Chairman. Gibney goes on to demonstrate how Abramoff’s charisma not only helped him carve out countless opportunities for financial gain at the expense of others, but also set the stage for the financial crisis that would eventually sweep the country in 2009. Watching the film four years after its initial release, Abramoff’s conservative rhetoric also seems to have played a part in planting the seeds for the Tea Party movement and, to a lesser extent, the Tea Party sweep during the 2010 midterm elections. "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


"Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" (2010)

While not nearly as strong as the rest of his work, Gibney’s film is a fascinating cultural artifact. Produced just two years after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation with Spitzer's cooperation, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" charts the career trajectory of the former New York State Attorney General-turned-Governor via interviews with high-profile executives targeted by Spitzer during his tenure as state’s Attorney General as well as various people in the escort business who knew the call girl who came forward once the scandal became public, and Spitzer himself -- who appeared on camera to discuss his work and, to some extent, the scandal that ended his career in public service.

The film constructs a rather sentimental argument that vaguely suggests Spitzer's downfall may have been orchestrated by the powerful businessmen he investigated. Gibney, who is a New Yorker himself, builds the national frustration over Spitzer's downfall into the framework of the film, particularly in the segment where he hires an actress to read the words of a call girl who actually spent more than one night with Spitzer. It's a subtle comment on the convoluted narrative associated with Spitzer's downfall. "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (2005)

Gibney’s investigation into the macho corporate culture of Enron tackles the ensuing scandal from both a financial and a psychological standpoint. Aside from breaking down the creative bookkeeping practices that eventually led to the company's downfall, the director also explores the grossly machismo corporate culture -- perpetuated by Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and other top executives -- that ultimately benefited a select few and destroyed the lives of thousands. The footage from company meetings led by the corporate leadership, along with recorded phone conversations between Enron traders, conjures an atmosphere that is just as abhorrent as the one seen in “Wolf of Wall Street." "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is currently available to stream on Netflix. 


"Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream" (2012)
Gibney approaches the income gap debate through geography — contrasting the north and south sides of New York City's legendary Park Avenue. The south side of Park Avenue is located in the Bronx and is one of the poorest districts in the country. Alternatively, the north side of Park Avenue — specifically 740 Park — is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world, including the Koch brothers and Steven Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. "Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream” is probably Gibney’s most conspicuous embrace of liberal ideology onscreen. The film asserts that powerful businessmen such as the Koch brothers and Schwarzman have used their wealth to influence policy-making in their favor. Gibney's central argument sets the film up as a sequel of sorts to “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” shifting its focus away from dealmakers like Abramoff over to the big business special interests a lobbyist like Abramoff might represent. 

"Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream” is currently available to stream on Netflix.


Sports


"Catching Hell" (2011)

The baseball documentary "Catching Hell" is a pretty straightforward indictment of a culture that thrives on scapegoats. The film examines the 2003 incident during the eighth inning of Game 6 in the playoffs, where Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman, in an attempt to catch what he thought was a foul ball, actually ended up preventing Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou from preventing a home run. The Cubs went on to lose the game, just when fans thought that the team might be able to overcome the notorious Curse of the Billy Goat (which has itself become a mythical scapegoat to explain the team's failure to win the World Series year after year). The most fascinating aspect of "Catching Hell," as it turns out, is the absence of an interview with Bartman. Gibney manages to interview everyone except his elusive subject. "Catching Hell" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


Lance Armstrong in "The Armstrong Lie."
Lance Armstrong in "The Armstrong Lie."

"The Armstrong Lie” (2013)
The strength of “The Armstrong Lie” lies not in its subject matter but rather the fact that Gibney recognizes and embraces the role that he plays in both the making and the unmaking of the Armstrong legend. Given the complicated circumstances surrounding production of the film, Gibney ends up being just as much of a character in the narrative as the athlete he follows around with a camera. Originally titled “The Road Back," Gibney began filming Armstrong in 2009 with the intent of making a film about the world champion and cancer survivor’s triumphant return to competing after a brief, four-year retirement. When the United States Anti-Doping Agency re-opened its investigation into the doping allegations against Armstrong, subsequently finding him guilty and stripping him of his titles, production on the "The Road Back” came to a halt. Following Armstrong’s rather notorious appearance on Oprah, the biker sat down with Gibney to discuss the reasons behind his lies and the consequences that he must live with for the rest of his life. The footage Gibney recorded of Armstrong back in 2009, along with the follow up interview he taped with Armstrong last year, join other interviews with former teammates and cycling experts that helped identify the stakes at hand for the entire industry.


"The Last Gladiators" (2011)
Gibney frequently divides his films into chapters, which makes it easier to comprehend the material, but isn’t necessarily seamless. In the ice hockey documentary “The Last Gladiators,” however, Gibney’s chapters actually help balance what is a two-pronged narrative; equal parts history lesson and character study. Gibney’s character study in “The Last Gladiators” is Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, a former enforcer for the Montreal Canadians, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. The film alternates between closely examining how ice hockey has shaped Nilan’s life over the years and then analyzing, via interviews with other former NHL players, coaches and sports writers, the role and consequences of violence across the sport at large. Throughout the film, Nilan is unapologetically honest about his success and his failures — always taking responsibility for his actions. When juxtaposed with discussions about the more brutal aspects of the game, however, “The Last Gladiators” is a sharp indictment against the NHL, which has yet to take responsibility for the alcohol and drug problems that typically affect enforcers once they decide or are forced to retire. Watch it for free below:


Culture and Politics


"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" (2008)

HunterSThompson

Gibney's film about the legendary Hunter S. Thompson is a powerful, psychedelic celebration of one of the most outspoken voices in the history of American counterculture. Clocking in at just under two hours, "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" is a captivating audio-visual poem in honor of the late rock star author, constructed via archival footage and interviews with both family members and former colleagues. Hunter's life story, as it appears onscreen, is framed within an audio track that mixes music from the time period with excerpts of Thompson’s writing, as read by actor Johnny Depp (channeling his onscreen take on Thompson in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"). "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


"Magic Trip" (2011)
Released a decade after Ken Kesey's death, "Magic Trip" features the 16mm footage shot by Kesey, best known as the author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," during a cross-country road trip with his "band of Merry Pranksters." During an interview with Anne Thompson back in 2011, Gibney explained how he and his longtime producer and editor, Alison Ellwood -- who's credited as a co-director on "Magic Trip" -- learned about the footage from an article in The New Yorker. Written by novelist Robert Stone, who, for a brief time, traveled on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters, the article casually mentions the existence of 40 film canisters documenting the trip. It took Gibney and Ellwood a long time to obtain rights to the film and properly restore it. Their persistence and deep respect for the integrity of the original material resulted in an anthropological project that transcends its archival significance. "Magic Trip" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" (2012)
Gibney addresses the painful matter of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church with great care. At the center of "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" are four deaf men who were sexually abused by one Father Lawrence Murphy while attending St. John's School for the Deaf during the 1960s. In the years that followed, the men repeatedly tried to alert the Church about the abuse, but their complaints went ignored and Father Murphy remained a member of the priesthood until he died in 1998. Although the film documents how this case of abuse has dragged on through these men's lives and even continues to this day, it also provides the men with a safe, respectful environment in which to share their experiences and feelings for the first time.


"My Trip to Al-Qaeda" (2010)
Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winning-author and staff writer at The New Yorker, is more than just the subject of "My Trip to Al-Qaeda." It might be more accurate to call Wright a co-collaborator with Gibney, whose film examines Wright's experiences teaching and living in the Middle East, taking cues from his voiceover narration. Unlike many Gibney films, the filmmaker's own view of the material is virtually absent. Considering that the film is based on one of Wright's interactive presentations (what he refers to as a play), it isn't far-fetched to assume that Gibney accepted the directing role because he found Wright's view compelling enough to carry the material on its own merits.


"Taxi to the Dark Side" (2007)
The tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was taken into custody by U.S. troops in December 2002 and subsequently tortured to death over the course of five days, lies at the heart of Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side." The film examines the ethical issues surrounding the U.S. government's torture policy in regards to prisoners being held abroad. Although Gibney addresses the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib, his decision to focus specifically on an incident that occurred early on in the conflict -- which culminated with a civilian casualty -- makes it easier for viewers to discern the film's argument that the misuse of torture techniques is systemic, rather than specific to the people carrying it out.


"The Ruling Classroom" (1980)
Gibney's first film, which he co-directed with his friend Peter Bull, chronicles a "Lord of the Flies"-esque educational experiment, led by a seventh grade teacher named George Muldoon. The concept: Muldoon had his students create their own society, with their own government, their own laws and their own economy. Problems arrived soon after, as certain students tried to manipulate the system in their favor, irrespective of who else might suffer. While the actions of the students may have resulted in the breakdown of their make-believe society, Gibney and Bull (who, in addition to observing the classroom uninterrupted, interview the students about the make-believe society's "current events") are partially responsible for the mini-society's eventual collapse: The interview process injects a certain degree of narcissism into the whole process.

"We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (2013)
Similar to Gibney's Eliot Spitzer documentary, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" was produced in close proximity to the events at its center. In fact, the story continued at the time of the film's release last year: Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning was found guilty on most charges last July, two months after "We Steal Secrets" hit theaters. Unlike the Spitzer documentary, however, Gibney's Wikileaks documentary not only outlines both sides of the government surveillance vs. privacy debate, but it also focuses specifically decoding the behavior of Manning and WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange. "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" is currently available to stream on Netflix.


This article is related to: Alex Gibney, Finding Fela, CASINO JACK & The United States of Money, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Park Avenue: Money, Power & The American Dream, Catching Hell, The Armstrong Lie, The Last Gladiators, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Magic Trip, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Ruling Classroom, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks





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