Alex Gibney is in a familiar place: the middle of an explosive political issue.
“Sometimes they pick me,” the documentary filmmaker told CQ Roll Call about the selection process for his topics.
The Academy Award-winner has explored some contentious terrain in his movies: torture conducted by U.S. authorities (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), sex in politics (“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”), corrupt business practices (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Washington’s lobbying culture (“Casino Jack and the United States of Money”) and the wild practices of bygone journalism (“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”).
Gibney’s latest film, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is right up this alley. “It didn’t take long for me to say yes,” he said of being approached by producer Marc Shmuger.
The movie details the story of WikiLeaks’ flashy founder Julian Assange and the imbroglio over leaked classified national security information that has brought the full wrath of the federal government on alleged leaker Bradley Manning.
The release of the film was planned to coincide with Manning’s trial, which began Monday. But what the filmmaker did not count on was that his movie would open with the added backdrop of the Obama administration snooping through the phone records of The Associated Press over national security leaks, as well as the Justice Department’s investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen for reporting on classified material.
“I think it’s helped,” Gibney said. “You see the seeds of what you’re seeing with the AP story and James Rosen” in the movie’s tale of the government’s reaction to the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as State Department cables, by a collaboration of WikiLeaks, The London Guardian and The New York Times.
Gibney sees the story of the leaks, which ignited a firestorm with their depiction of the realpolitik behind U.S. military and diplomatic strategy, as something that had been coming down the pike for some time.
“The world had gotten radically out of balance,” he said at a recent screening of the film, and leaks were a way of bringing things back into balance.
He believes the issues brought to the fore by such actions have been overshadowed a bit since Assange got into trouble for his sexual misdeeds in Sweden, a bizarre legal situation that has led to the WikiLeaks founder holing up in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition.
“One of the great tragedies of this story is that for a brief moment, WikiLeaks could have formed an alliance with mainstream journalism. But that blew up,” Gibney said, when Assange’s legal troubles became conflated with what WikiLeaks was doing journalistically.
Still, the debate about how journalists deal with classified information is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
In the movie, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who resigned his post after making critical remarks about how the military was handling Manning, said the government’s posture toward sensitive information since 9/11 has gone from “need to know to need to share.” And this will mean that more information than ever will be classified, and subsequently reported on.
A Golden Age
Gibney’s career has come at a time when documentaries have more outlets than ever, and more kinds of documentaries are accepted by audiences.
“The ancient rules about what you could and couldn’t do [have been] exploded,” he told CQ Roll Call. He sees his own projects as “a combination of personal voice and fact-gathering.”
He believes this plays out not just in his own films, but in other recent works such as Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” and Rick Rowley’s “Dirty Wars.”
“I think the documentary has come into its own as an art form,” he said.
To be sure, he traces his influences to older favorites, such as “Gimme Shelter,” by Albert and David Maysles, the documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour that included a concert at Altamont Speedway in California that went sideways after the Hell’s Angels were put in charge of security and beat up and killed a spectator.
And one of those older films still resonates with Gibney, Alain Resnais’ 1955 “Night and Fog,” a 32-minute exploration of the Nazis’ death camps and the Final Solution. “It’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant,” he said.
‘Like Picking a Child’
When asked what his favorite film was from his own work, which consists of more than 20 titles for theatrical and television release, Gibney hesitated.
“That’s a tough one for me. Like picking a child,” he said, before adding that “Taxi to the Dark Side,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2008, comes pretty close.
“The one that’s most personal to me is ‘Taxi to the Dark Side.’ My father’s in it, and he died during the making of it,” Gibney said. His father, Frank Gibney, was an interrogator for the Navy during World War II. At the time of filming, the elder Gibney was on his death bed. But he wanted to go on the record for his son’s movie about his disgust with U.S. torture practices. He died before the movie was completed.
At the Academy Awards Ceremony on Feb. 24, 2008, Gibney dedicated the Oscar win to Dilawar, the Afghan taxi driver whose ordeal and fate provided the story for the film. Dilawar was taken prisoner in Afghanistan as a suspected terrorist in the early years of the war. He was taken to the military’s base at Bagram and tortured and eventually died, even though he was innocent.
Although Gibney’s topics are among the heaviest one can pursue, his movies aren’t all doom and gloom. In one scene in “We Steal Secrets,” a message Manning sends details how he downloaded documents onto a burnable CD that had a Lady Gaga label on it. The scene illustrates information moving through cyberspace to the sounds of “Telephone,” one of Lady Gaga’s most popular songs. The movie ends to the sounds of The Ink Spots “If I Didn’t Care,” an old-timey tune that rounds out the exploration of a modern ethical argument.
He has an eye, and ear, for such things. He could only marvel at a scene from the documentary “When We Were Kings” by Leon Gast, when writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer jumped out of their seats when Muhammad Ali punches George Foreman.
“What a moment.”