Patrick Pittman on Alex Gibney
I’m standing with Alex Gibney in the foyer of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. A queue is snaking around several flights of stairs, here for a sold-out screening of a pieced-together collection of archival footage of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a bunch of tripping wannabe revolutionaries at the dawn of hippiedom. It’s a couple of days after Rupert and James Murdoch’s testimony to the UK parliament on the phone hacking scandal, and pranks are in the air; we have just been laughing with a well-respected film critic about her failed attempts to have Rupert Murdoch cream-pied in the early 1980s.
Six years ago, Gibney furiously burst onto the international scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Before Enron, we’d had plenty of angry documentaries about corporate America in the twilight of late capitalism. Gibney’s film, with its freewheeling mix of absurdity, rigour, righteous anger, and emotional depth, stood apart. By focussing not on the victims of corporate crime but the perpetrators, he showed himself as something more than a Michael Moore. He did not set out to expose new truths previously unreported, but to take a scandal that was already played out in the financial pages of the world’s press, and to hold it up for reflection. His challenge to viewers was not to get angry, not to stick their heads out the windows and yell “I’m as mad as hell”, but to do something much more important: to ask themselves just how Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and their corporate cohorts had managed to take global finance on a joyride, burning everything and everybody in their path.
The threads that run through all of Gibney’s work can be found in there. Enron received an Oscar nomination, but it was Taxi to the Dark Side that got him on the podium and cemented him as a great. Taxi was the story of an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, beaten to death while held in detention by American soldiers. It was a film about torture, sure, and about broken foreign policy. But the worth of torture was not the burning question that fuelled this harrowing, soul-crushing film. Instead he asked, and continues to ask, what drives the reasonable mind to unreasonable action. You can find this question, too, at the heart of his latest, Client 9, a confounding character study of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, a crusader for rights and justice whose misadventures with high-end escorts have become a sad kind of legend.
When a Gibney story breaks, studios seek him out. He is in the early stages of a Wikileaks-related project. He can’t, ha ha, say anything about it. Whether in his ‘serious’ films, or in the release valves like this Kesey road trip, he is a man driven to get stories out, not afraid to thumb his nose when needed. We get a little too caught up sometimes looking for the truth of the matter. Sometimes, I’m thinking, dragging him to the ACMI cafe as the lights go down in the cinema, you need to throw a little pie.