Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney appears to be on a one-man mission to expose corruption. In 2005, he took on the duplicity of Enron with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. He won an Oscar in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side, his examination of the Bush administration’s torture policy. And last year, he gave voice to deaf sexual-abuse victims at the hands of a Catholic priest in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Wherever he looks, he finds hypocrisy and abuses of power—he wants to personalize current events and enrage us by what he uncovers. But just as importantly, he wants to warn us: The more we put our faith in institutions and heroes, the easier it is for them to betray us.
Gibney’s latest, The Armstrong Lie,is his 10th full-length theatrical documentary in the last eight years—and his fourth in the last 12 months. (That’s not counting his participation in the 2010 omnibus doc Freakonomics and his contribution to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Catching Hell, about infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman.) The film had the potential to be a feel-good inspirational tale. Initially conceived in 2008, the documentary was going to follow decorated cyclist Lance Armstrong as he came out of retirement to train for the 2009 Tour de France, an event he dominated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Plagued by rumors that he used performance-enhancing drugs for those Tour victories, Armstrong wanted to clear his name—and Gibney would be there to document the triumph.
That didn’t happen. Though Armstrong placed third in the Tour, he could no longer outpace the years-long speculation surrounding his alleged doping. On August 23, 2012, he ended his battle with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, forfeiting his Tour victories, and five months later, he came clean to Oprah, finally admitting that he had been doping all along.
These events forced Gibney to reconceive his film, and as a result, The Armstrong Lie now fits perfectly within the director’s body of work—another cautionary tale about the darkness lurking underneath the glittering public image we’ve been sold. And like many of his movies, The Armstrong Lie doesn’t just examine corruption, it also shines a light on the people victimized by that corruption. (In this case, that includes Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy Andreu, whom he ridiculed and intimidated when they tried to blow the whistle on him.)
Earlier this year, while promoting Mea Maxima Culpa, which detailed a sex scandal involving children at a Wisconsin Catholic school for the deaf starting in the 1950s, Gibney tried to explain to the A.V. Club what it is about corruption that fascinates him. “I’m not sure why, but I seem to be drawn to stories about abuses of power,” he said. “But I’m also drawn, not so much to victims’ stories, as stories that tend to show how power works. Because if you don’t understand the criminals, you can’t figure out how to stop the crimes.”
Gibney has been interested—almost obsessively—with trying to crack the code on what makes people do despicable things. Again and again, his films feature the same narrative arc: He/it seemed so impressive, but then the world found out that he/it was doing something terrible—how could this have happened? This arc should be repetitive, but Gibney’s documentaries (despite their faults) are compelling precisely because, like him, we can’t get enough of stories about the evils of power. Most of us living our morally decent lives can’t imagine ever turning out the way his subjects did, and so, there’s an undeniable curiosity about how the other half lives.
Maybe that’s why his films often feel like meticulous exit interviews. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (about the former New York governor), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (about indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff) and The Armstrong Lie all feature interviews with their felled subjects, not so much to wring contrition out of them but to figure out what the hell they were thinking. And what emerges from their mouths isn’t insight as much as it is a mixture of pride, defensiveness and bafflement—even they don’t always seem to know their motivations. (“Those are the mysteries of the human mind,” Spitzer tells Gibney when trying to explain his predilection for prostitutes.) There’s an ethical chasm between Gibney’s subjects and the rest of us, and the fascination comes in seeing how their behavior starts off relatable before careening into morally slippery terrain.
No wonder Gibney refuses to simplify his criminals into one-note bad guys. From his perspective, his subjects aren’t evil—they’re simply clouded by their own sense of righteousness. As he told The Progressive in 2010 when comparing Casino Jack and Enron: “With Casino Jack, you have political corruption as opposed to economic corruption; it’s a different kind of problem. What’s interesting to me and similar to Enron is that the Enron people were very ideological. They had a sort of agenda, and they felt they were pure-hearted warriors. But that idea leads quickly to corruption because the ends justified the means. You can cook your books because Enron is a force of good. Same thing with Jack and his cronies, because after all what you’re seeking is good and true, so again the ends justify the means. I’m always interested in the path of corruption because ultimately it’s about deception.”
From that logic, it’s understandable—albeit disturbing—that a born competitor such as Lance Armstrong sees doping not as treachery but as a way to combat those who doubted his athletic abilities after surviving cancer. Likewise, Julian Assange, the subject of Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, is depicted as a once-noble champion of the people’s right to know whose narcissism blinded him from his own failings, which he tried to conceal with punitive nondisclosure agreements for his employees. Lawrence Murphy, the pedophile priest at the center of Mea Maxima Culpa, is protected by his superiors because of a misguided belief that the Church was ultimately a force for good in the world. Those who used torture in Taxi to the Dark Side did it because they thought they were keeping America safe. In a Gibney documentary, everybody has their reasons, which makes the ruined lives and tarnished reputations he chronicles all the more tragic.
Though it’s easy for us to shake our heads at this bad behavior, Gibney doesn’t let the audience off the hook. His films often focus on those individuals who were at one point proudly carted out as respectable: role models for the rest of us. Part of the anger one feels while watching Enron—beyond being incensed that the company eviscerated its employees’ retirement accounts and defrauded millions of Americans—is that Enron was once heralded as an innovative corporation, a model for the future that would traffic in alternative energy sources like natural gas. Similarly, Spitzer was touted as a hero for his tough stance on corruption, while Armstrong inspired cancer patients that they could Livestrong. (Throughout The Armstrong Lie, we see how the media simply couldn’t believe that he was doping because they adored his personal narrative so much.) Gibney’s subjects believed the righteousness of their actions—and we did, too. That’s why we can’t be smug after watching his films—we’re complicit in believing, for example, that Armstrong’s Tour victories were proof of the indomitable human spirit, not an obvious product of calculated cheating.
Gibney’s compulsion to chronicle corruption has its drawbacks. His slickly produced films can be too glancing in their investigations, offering helpful overviews of major scandals but not necessarily diving deeply enough. (Only Taxi to the Dark Side feels wholly absorbing and complete as an exposé.) Mea Maxima Culpa and Client 9 are involving but also a bit rushed, suggesting that Gibney sometimes has too many projects going on at once to give each one the careful attention it deserves. (This is even truer with his more minor docs, like Catching Hell and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which play like side projects that are intelligently made but unsubstantial.) And his attempts at manipulating our emotions can be as ham-fisted as his musical choices. (Tom Waits for “dark, ironic” moments; overplayed classic rock for any flashback to a subject’s childhood.)
But Gibney’s reliance on “entertaining,” user-friendly filmmaking—his emphasis on familiar rise-then-fall narratives—might in part be a way to sugarcoat the pill he’s prescribing. “With Enron, there were a lot of news stories about it but nobody was particularly interested in doing a documentary on it,” he told Filmmaker in 2008. “But when you see it there in a two-hour narrative, you suddenly understand the moral force of the story in a way that you don’t otherwise get. People came out of Enron saying to me, ‘I understood it for the first time, I just didn’t get it before.’ That’s important to me.”
For the last decade, Gibney has been retelling our recent history through the people who made it happen or were the ones most affected by it: the now-adult victims of sexual abuse in Mea Maxima Culpa, the emotionally scarred former friends of Armstrong’s in The Armstrong Lie. Even when they’re imperfect, his documentaries have a bluntness that forces us to see ourselves within the headlines. Maybe it’s lamentable that he hasn’t slowed down to focus his energies on fewer projects. But as we can see from the news (the NFL’s cover-up of its concussion findings, the relative lack of punishment of banks like J.P. Morgan that nearly toppled the world economy in 2008), corruption is in no mood to start slowing down either.
Photo: Maryse Alberti, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics