Alex Gibney: The Smartest Guy in the Room

Utne Reader visionary
by Rob Nelson, Utne Reader
November-December 2010
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Illustration: gluekit • Gibney photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders


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“If you’re entertaining people, you can say almost anything you want,” declares documentarian Alex Gibney, offering an aptly playful description of his hard-hitting, info-jammed, message-minded cinema. From Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) through this year’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money and the new Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Gibney coats his bitter pills with the sugar of dark comedy, as the men too big to fail—the men in whom we ordinary schmoes invest our trust, if not our cash—inevitably slip on banana peels. 

In the eye-popping visual vocabulary of Client 9, for instance, Gibney likens Spitzer, the former New York governor turned sex scandal pariah, to a leopard on the prowl—scary and sympathetic, hungry and vulnerable.  

What makes Gibney unique in this era of rampant first-person documentary is that, without his actual presence on screen ingratiating him with the viewer, the director nonetheless establishes an authorial personality as big as Michael Moore’s. His storytelling is uncommonly cinematic among documentary makers, and his themes are fall-of-Rome epic, more anthropological than psychological. 

“You can see in my films that I get worked up about abuses of power and authority,” says Gibney. “Most corrupt individuals get away with their crimes by saying ‘trust me’—like the Enron guys, for instance. You act regal and you’re not questioned.” 

Questioning the unquestionable has been Gibney’s stock-in-trade for longer than the 10 years he has been directing nonfiction films. His gifts as an interviewer stem not from his tenure at UCLA film school, he says, but from his childhood.  

“My mom was a wild character, something of a writer; my dad was a journalist; and my stepdad was a political activist,” he says. “They encouraged me to be curious, to ask tough questions and not to kneel before authority.” 

Perhaps on the strength of his past work, including the unusually somber Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Gibney persuaded Spitzer to allow himself to be grilled in Client 9 to a degree that the politician has never before experienced, not even under the hot lights of scandalmania. 

“It was hard for him to sit for some of those questions about his involvement in prostitution, because it meant having to confront some stuff that I’m not sure he’s ever properly confronted,” Gibney says. “He was reckoning with those questions, though, in a way he couldn’t fully articulate or even understand.” 

Believe it or not, Client 9 and Casino Jack, a typically cockeyed look at disgraced überlobbyist Jack Abramoff, constitute less than half of Gibney’s recent and upcoming work. He directed My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which premiered on HBO in September. He shot one chapter (the best one, incidentally) of the book Freakonomics, newly released to theaters after a run on cable. Nearly completed are Gibney’s feature-length documentary portraits of writer Ken Kesey and bicyclist Lance Armstrong.  

“It does become all-consuming sometimes—much to the chagrin of my family,” the filmmaker says. “Sometimes I feel I should be committed.” 

Does that mean the documentarian’s life resembles that of Spitzer, a self-described “relentless” prosecutor? 

“It does to some extent, yes,” he confesses. “Just don’t tell my wife about the hookers.” 

There again is the essence of Gibney: Entertain your audience and you can say almost anything you want. 

Extras: 

Read a New York Times profile of Alex Gibney; read Gibney’s blog for The Atlantic, where he writes about subjects including politics, human rights, and the arts; and see the trailer for Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. 

Read more: 25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World  


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