REVIEW: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

5 09 2015

Steve Jobs The Man in the MachineAlex Gibney has made his career as a documentarian by holding powerful institutions accountable for their misdeeds, be they the Church of Scientology, the U.S. Military, the Catholic Church, or Enron.  On the less frequent occasion when he covers individual subjects, the films have never become personal portraiture.  “Casino Jack,” “Client 9,” and “The Armstrong Lie” were not about their subjects; they were about power and the corrosive effects it can have on capable men.

The same dynamic does not necessarily apply to Gibney’s latest effort, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.”  The film feels more like a project the director explored out of curiosity rather than his usual genuine righteous anger.  Without such indignation, the documentary plays a little bit like one of the actual smartest guys in the room picking on an icon as a pure intellectual exercise.  His aim appears not to be uncovering some unsavory truth about human vice; instead, Gibney just brings a god among men back to mere mortal status just to show he can.

To be fair, maybe some of that needed to happen.  The somewhat excessive mourning that sprung from Jobs’ early passing in 2011 does raise some questions about how our society conflates the man with his machines.  Gibney does his best work when he can isolate Jobs from the gadgets we now treat as appendages.  His curated archival footage shows Jobs as a testier, feistier figure than the avuncular wizard who waltzed on stage once a year in the first decade of the 2000s to radically transform our communicative capabilities.  In one deposition to which Gibney frequently cuts, Jobs can barely sit still, constantly adjusting his position and scarcely concealing his disdain.

When he attempts to make a larger statement about our technology-addled world, though, Gibney’s reach exceeds his grasp.  It would be better not to invoke Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” than to have such a cursory conversation about it – that’s a topic for an entirely different film.  These deep, intellectual ideas just feel out of place in a film mostly devoted (especially in its back half) to rattling off a litany of underreported transgressions.

Did you know that Apple sheltered its profits from taxation in Ireland?  Or that their factory conditions in China are beyond deplorable?  That Apple participated in some sketchy hiring collusion?  That Jobs ended charity programs at the company?  Yes, prepare to have any pedestal on which you put Steve Jobs severely undercut.  But why one of America’s greatest documentarians took the time to do this research – rather than a dedicated YouTube user – escapes me.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Going Clear

6 04 2015

Going ClearSo long as writer/director Alex Gibney’s research is solid, then his searing exposé “Going Clear” makes a pretty damning case for the group’s dismantling.  Or, at the very least, it ought to lose the aegis of religion under which it hides physical and mental abuse.  The Church of Scientology should definitely not qualify for tax exemption since such a privilege seems to be the modus operandi for L. Ron Hubbard to claim his science-fiction texts were a religion in the first place.

Gibney stirs up a lot of emotions as he documents the development of Scientology, its growth in the Hollywood community, and the shocking measures of the leaders (namely chairman David Miscavige) to maintain the group’s fragile stability.  The most obvious is anger, a sentiment that the documentarian can elicit with ease.  “Going Clear” makes the impact of “Mea Maxima Culpa,” Gibney’s documentary about sexual misconduct within the Catholic Church, seem like an investigative report about robbing a 7/11.

But the gamut of feeling moves far beyond easy outrage into a much wider range.  There is pity for John Travolta, who the Church of Scientology may have blackmailed into silence with personal revelations that he disclosed in auditing sessions (at his own expense, no less).  There is also disappointment with Travolta, Tom Cruise, and other high-profile members who appear to turn a blind eye to the exploitation since they derive benefit from luxury services the Church provides.  There is incredulity to spare as Gibney exposes some dark corners of Scientology’s tax evasion and bullying tactics.

One thing that “Going Clear” is not, however, is an attack on the religion’s core beliefs.  (“South Park” already took care of that.)  Gibney never suggests the foolishness of the members for buying into what many, myself included, think constitutes a rather far-fetched system of teachings.  Furthermore, he never blames them for falling into the “prison of belief,” a phrase used in the film’s subtitle.

When the Scientology defectors give their interviews, they often speak in terms that could apply to any extreme sect or cult in any mainline faith.  The problem with Scientology, as articulated by Gibney, has nothing to do with faith but rather with how religious leaders can exploit vulnerable people into permitting or condoning inexcusable acts.  A- / 3halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 26, 2015)

26 03 2015

The Armstrong LieDocumentarian Alex Gibney is not only one of the most prolific directors in his field; he is also one of its most incisive.  Gibney tends to gravitate towards two extremes in his choice of subjects, macro level exposés of corrupt institutions (Enron, the Catholic Church, the U.S. military) and portraiture of fallen men (Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer).  Many of his documentaries contain elements of both, but none blend them better than his 2013 work “The Armstrong Lie.”

The film plays somewhat like an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary (a series to which Gibney has contributed) yet with a killer twist.  Gibney’s initial premise for a documentary on Lance Armstrong began as an adulatory one, filming his improbable comeback with a rosy lens.  Then, a few years later, the approach changed thanks to the shocking revelation of Armstrong’s duplicity and doping.

Gibney then sits back down with the footage and examines how Armstrong was able to hoodwink him and the rest of the world.  Remarkably, Armstrong himself sits down for another interview with Gibney to bare his soul, too.  These interrogations, along with other extensive investigative reporting, constitute “The Armstrong Lie,” one of the most fascinating confessional documents ever produced.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because Gibney puts himself in the shoes of the average viewer to tell it, trying to comprehend how we all fell victim to his deception.

As it turns out, Armstrong is basically the sporting world’s incarnation of Jordan Belfort from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  He cheated with performance-enhancing drugs since the beginning of his remarkable run of Tour de France victories and essentially brought about his own demise with a cocky “victory lap” in 2009.  The sport of cycling needed a celebrity figure to drive interest, so the authorities looked the other way and became complicit in his scheme because they wanted him to be real.  As Armstrong says in the film, “It pays to believe in winning at all costs.”

Lance Armstrong’s story ultimately becomes a sort of microcosm for society as a whole.  He is just the latest hubristic male leader for whom power does not beget responsibility to a higher standard but rather rapacious recklessness.  Armstrong’s actions never take into account the potential effect on cancer patients, cycling fanatics, or anyone at all who ever looked to him as a symbol of hope and perseverance.  “The Armstrong Lie” does feel somewhat incomplete because Gibney assembled it in the immediate wake of Armstrong’s admissions, although it could definitely lend itself to a sequel to see if Armstrong has actually learned a lesson.

REVIEW: Magic Trip

25 03 2015

Magic TripIn the interregnum between the Beatnik era of “On the Road” and the hippies of “Inherent Vice,” there was Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters.  The writer, best known for the counterculture classic “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” rode around the country with a group of pals in a bus called “Further.”  They sought the creation of art and the consumption of drugs – it was the mid-1960s, after all.

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” documents their odd voyage, though not with the usual talking heads and ex post facto interviews.  The directors got their hands on the 16 mm footage that Kesey and company shot on “Further” and construct most of their nearly two-hour documentary out of the raw material, which had previously been unseen by audiences.

Admittedly, this is a film that will appeal most to those familiar with Kesey’s work and are curious to learn more about the man and the time that spawned them.  “Magic Trip” often sags under the weight of its embarrassment of riches; after all, those who want to learn more should be able to experience as much of it as possible.

But even for those unfamiliar with the author or the circles in which he ran, “Magic Trip” still provides an excellent document of what it was like to be on the fringes of society before the tumult of the decade pushed more people that direction.  Gibney and Ellwood also do a brilliant job depicting their drug usage, crafting a brilliant sequence of words and images to accompany audio footage of Kesey’s first LSD trip.  And, mind you, that partaking was not merely recreational.  It was sponsored by the CIA.  What a time.  B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 3, 2014)

3 10 2014

We Steal SecretsOscar-winner Alex Gibney isn’t called the hardest working man in documentaries without reason.  It’s not uncommon for him to churn out more than one feature-length film in a given year, and unlike Woody Allen, they all manage to be exceptionally good.  His first of two 2013 docs, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” more than hits the sweet spot.

Gibney tackles the politically charged and highly controversial subject of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, a site committed to publishing information that powerful figures would rather be kept under wraps.  But unlike Gibney’s films tackling a pretty clear-cut right and wrong, such as his chronicle of Elliot Spitzer in “Client 9,” the ethics and morality of “We Steal Secrets” are incredibly murky.  This masterful steering through foggy gray area makes the film a perfect pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The documentary also provides a great blend of two very different narrative styles, the individual portrait and the issues-based landscape of their broader intellectual context.  Gibney gives us plenty of biographical information on Assange, shedding light on his background and thus allowing us to better make sense of him.  Yet even with all this knowledge, he still remains a question mark.  That is not to insult Gibney’s filmmaking but rather to complement it – he casts Assange as neither hero nor villain, simply a man who has made choices that we can interpret in a variety of ways.

As Assange fundamentally changes the nature of geopolitics, it is certainly a fact that he pushes the world in the direction of being more transparent.  Gibney fills “We Steal Secrets” with commentators on both sides of the privacy debate, with a passionate and well-informed case being made for each.  Ultimately, the choice of whether secrets are good, necessary, or justifiable is left up to the viewer.  And after Gibney’s powerful documentary, not forming some kind of philosophy is simply not an option.  One can only hope he has something similar in mind about Edward Snowden…

F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 12, 2012)

12 10 2012

casino_jack_and_the_united_states_of_moneySeveral centuries ago, William Shakespeare wrote “all the world’s a stage.”  The statement remains accurate, but perhaps the best modern revision of his quote would be “all the world’s a market” or “all the world is a product.”  Alex Gibney, the ever-ready documentarian of our times, continues his pattern of presenting a particularly disturbing episode and then explaining the cultural factors that caused it.

He did it to the luster of an Oscar in “Taxi to the Dark Side” in 2007, and in 2010, he did it again with “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (albeit without Oscar gold).  His look at the culture of corruption running rampant in Washington, D.C. is absolutely frightening.  Seriously, it will make you want to audit your Congressman.

Lobbyists have always been very buddy-buddy with Congress, getting their foot in the proverbial door of a Representative to convince them of the benefits of passing certain legislation (that’s in favor of their client, of course).  And Jack Abramoff was the ultimate lobbyist.  A prime salesman and great people-person, Abramoff rode into Washington on the coattails of the Republican Revolution of 1994.  Sadly for Hollywood, this meant no more films from Abramoff, a producer who wrote a 1989 Dolph Lundgren jingoistic action film.

Unfortunately for Native Americans and poor Pacific Islanders, though, Abramoff got to work with the new leadership in Congress and managed to get big money for himself, for his cronies, and for his buddies in the House.  See Jack bribe, see Jack corrupt, see Jack get brought down.  And pick your jaw off the floor when it’s all wrapped up.  It takes a lot for a documentary to get you worked up, but Gibney does it with ease.  (Oh, and don’t worry, Jack is already out of prison too.)

REVIEW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

16 06 2011

With the chaotic Anthony Weiner scandal finally ending in his resignation (but hopefully not putting those hilarious sexual puns to rest), it seems like as good a time as ever to discuss “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” Alex Gibney’s fascinating documentary of another New York politician driven out of office by the revelation of personal vice.  The prolific documentarian delivers an enthralling chronicle of Spitzer’s career, from his heights as Attorney General to the humiliating admission that he had been involved in a prostitution ring.  Gibney provides a multilateral view of it all, leaving no stone unturned and showing how Spitzer was digging his own grave while constructing his doomed political colossus.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with Spitzer from any context other than his CNN show or the embarrassing final press conferences with his wife standing steadfastly behind him, Gibney’s portrait brings everyone up to speed with his career.  Beginning from his tenure as Attorney General of the state of New York, Spitzer was deeply committed to delivering justice.  Given the state, his jurisdiction included Wall Street, and anyone who rattles the cages there is bound to piss off some powerful people.  While his dynamic regulation earned him praise from the press, with some hailing him as “the future first Jewish president,” there were men behind the scenes looking for ways to bring about his demise.

Ultimately, they didn’t have to resort to Mafia techniques to see the realization of their dream; Spitzer handed it to them on a silver platter.  Behind the successful, married, and unflappable façade he constructed was a man seeking for something more.  Unfortunately, he found that something in a high-priced prostitute known as Ashley Dupre.  It only took a little bit of dirt searching to find this secret, and as they say, the rest is history.

Gibney gets interviews from all the high-profile figures in the saga, from the pissed-off powerbrokers to the pragmatic prostitutes.  But unlike most documentaries, “Client 9” boasts having first person commentary from the two main characters in the story – Spitzer himself and Ashley Dupre, played by an actress to protect herself.  The hired hand does a great job of bringing her story to life, but it’s Spitzer that draws us in and never lets us go.  We can see how tough it is for him to admit to his mistakes and relive the painful events that brought down his life.

Watching Spitzer’s admissions with such raw humanity makes “Client 9” essential viewing in spite of Gibney’s inconsistencies.  The nearly two hour movie flip-flops between various tones, including a History Channel special, a tale of political intrigue reminiscent of the fifth season of “24,” a thriller, and an exposé of the prostitution industry.  But in spite of its shortcomings, Gibney’s film draws some important conclusions about what leads men in power to slip up, and Anthony Weiner is just further proof that what he has to say is still extremely relevant.  B / 

F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 12, 2010)

12 11 2010

There are plenty of political documentaries out there to watch, each of them pointing out a specific flaw in the system and offering an optimistic solution.  Most find that they can make the most effective film by focusing very narrowly on their subject.  Alex Gibney proves an exception with his Academy Award-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

I got a chance to attend a seminar and discussion with Gibney at the Houston Cinematic Arts Festival today, and it was a very interesting and enlightening hour.  Gibney talked about how he learned the importance of voice, story, and individual perspective while working on “The Blues,” and these three things have shaped the way he has made all of his movies since then.  He said that it’s often hard to keep these things in mind, particularly the story since the process of scripting a documentary is backwards.  But, as he stated, “If you don’t pay attention to the story, no one will care about the themes.”

I watched a few of Gibney’s movies to be able to ask an intelligent question at the seminar, and I found myself really wanting to ask him about “Taxi to the Dark Side.”  It’s such a fascinating movie because at the core, it’s about three soldiers who torture and kill an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar on the Bagram Air Base.  Yet Gibney knows that their story cannot be accurately and honestly told by keeping the perspective limited to just the men, the victim, and the base.  He expands the scope of the movie not only to cover the United States’ torture policy and the complicated ethical arguments surrounding it, but also to include how the American public has become desensitized to torture.  We leave the story of the three normal soldiers for extended periods of time to cover the highest officials in the country but the movie never forgets that their story is at the center of the movie.

The movie was made in 2007 whenever George W. Bush still occupied the Oval Office, so I wondered what exactly Gibney hoped to achieve by making the movie when he did.  I asked him how the times affected the way he made “Taxi to the Dark Side,” wondering what it would look like if he made the movie in 2010 when Barack Obama calls the shots.  He replied, “I don’t think of myself as a crusader; I think of myself as a storyteller.”  In response to his claim, I can only be in full support.  Gibney clearly has an opinion and isn’t shy about expressing them in his movies; however, he offers up so many facts and ethical questions that you can’t help walking away from the movie questioning why you believe what you do.  You can choose to change or stay the same, but everyone is bettered by further understanding of their own values.

Gibney concluded his response to me by stating that “Taxi to the Dark Side” centered around this question: how do we retain our values in the face of a pernicious threat?  No matter your opinion on what went down in Iraq, we all have to admit that we lost a sense of American righteousness and justice in the eyes of the world over the past decade.  Terrorism has threatened our security and stability as a nation like few things ever have, but are we willing to discard our most American values to stop it?  What price are we willing to pay for our safety?  Gibney doesn’t offer us any easy answers, and that’s what makes this such a great movie.  Rather than throw solutions in your face like other activist documentaries, his “Taxi to the Dark Side” merely raises the questions and leaves you pondering them for days.