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Pal, You Better Follow the Story or You're Cooked, Says Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney says, "The reason I hate the whole bad apple thing is because it allows us as human beings to completely disengage, to say, 'I'd never do anything bad, because I'm good.'"

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Jack Abramoff, William Branner
Year: 2010
US Release Date:

"In the main," says Alex Gibney, "Documentaries are much more exciting than most fiction films." He pauses to sip coffee and unwrap his morning muffin. "I think most documentary filmmakers are loosening themselves up, they're doing stuff that's much more interesting in stylistic terms." Gibney is at the forefront of this advance. The director and producer of the 2007 Oscar winner, Taxi to the Dark Side, he pushes past conventional documentary structures and expectations to tell stories in new ways.

The stories that interest Gibney most concern power and corruption. From Taxi to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) to his new films, Casino Jack and the United States of Money and the still untitled documentaries on Eliot Spitzer and Lance Armstrong, Gibney's movies focus on survival and failure, education and ambition. As wide-ranging and volatile as their subjects may be, the films are consistently smart and provocative.

I asked how he decided to organize the film.

Alex Gibney: The story is really complicated, but at the center you have a great character, so you kind of can't lose. The trick in the movie was to find a narrative that could be contained, because he was so all over the place. You look for really interesting material and you fashion it in the cutting room into a story that resembles a fiction film, rather than just doing a report. There comes a point in every documentary I do where there are all sorts of things I want to say, or there are some important thematic issues I want to get into, interesting sidelines. But at some point, like a little gremlin in the cutting room, the story peeks up and says, "Pal, you better follow the story or you're cooked." That's usually the how we end up cutting down: we take out most everything that's extraneous to that story.

PopMatters: You had a particular challenge here, being unable to put this character on film.

AG: It was the ultimate challenge. But I got confident after doing the Enron film, where Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay wouldn't talk to me. So in addition to the archival footage and photographs, we found other people who knew Jack well. It was key for me to get Bob Ney and Neil Volz and also Adam Kidan, who had been part of the SunCruz scam. That's how you kind of circle around the character. And we found not only this wonderful footage of Jack as a young man, but also audiotapes of Jack pitching the tribes.

PM: That was a nice visual effect, too, to show the tape wheels turning.

AG: Now, we're doing the Eliot Spitzer film, and the old convention of showing the newspaper or the turning wheels of the cassette recorder, that's over now. In the Spitzer film, we show the newspapers as web-pages and the blinking light of the digital recorder, but that's about as much as you can show now. It's a beautiful thing seeing the reels turn, but that's old school.

PM: And it can be so dramatic, like that moment in Thin Blue Line when David Harris confesses in prison and Errol Morris' camera has broken, so all he has to show are close-ups of his mini-recorder.

AG: Yes. I actually did visit Jack in prison, but you can't even bring a pencil inside. So I could take the measure of the man, or at least that side that he's showing to me.

PM: How aware of himself does he seem to you?

AG: I think he's aware of himself. The trick with Jack is, you never know which self he's aware of. I think Jack is many men. You never know who you're talking to at a particular time. But it's pretty entertaining. He's very charming, very smart, obviously not possessed of very good judgment. And he seems contrite. Prison will do that to you. You could kind of get a glimpse of how good Jack is at telling everybody what they want to hear.

PM: "Contrite" is an interesting idea here, because he was doing what so many other people do as well. Ney makes that point at the end of the film. But Abramoff seems a logical product of how this all works.

AG: Jack shredded the envelope in some ways, but in other ways, yes, he is part of the mainstream. We have a system in our country of legalized bribery, trading favors and access for money. And it's not all money. You think that you give cash to a politician and he does what you say, but it's not all like that. It's this whole revolving door thing, it's about relationships. That's illustrated in our story with Neil Volz and Bob Ney: Neil was a close friend of Bob's, his chief of staff, but then he went across town to work on K Street, where he could make a lot of money. Now, I'm told that more and more, working on the Hill is a means to an end. It's like having to go through AAA to get the major leagues.

PM: It's hard to say, since they're all performers, but Neil looks genuinely upset when he talks about betraying Bob, his mentor.

AG: We had to deal with a lot of nasty stuff on this project, but one of the fun things was that when we went to Sundance, we invited both Bob and Neil out. Neither one had seen the film. And there was no love lost between them, especially on Bob's side, because Neil had helped send him to prison. But when they were together, it was impressive to see how much individual responsibility each took. Now they're talking to each other again. So we're going on the tour together, and it's a blast: it's like two short order cooks in a Chinese restaurant talking about how the sausage is made. It's fascinating.

To me, one of the most poignant moments in the film is the voice message that Ney leaves on Neil's phone machine. They can joke about it now, but it's something out of Lord of the Rings, when Sam and Frodo are torn apart by the power of the ring. That's what happened to Bob and Neil: their relationship was destroyed.

PM: Can you talk about how you encourage your subjects to talk, to share experiences or even think about trusting you? What is that process?

AG: I don't really know. I can't say I spend a lot of time with them ahead of time. But I caught Neil at a moment, right after he had been sentenced, when he was suddenly free to talk. Or, not exactly free. I must say I don't really like the way the Department of Justice works on these cases. They try so hard to keep these guys under wraps. I don't think that's good for the rest of society. But they're all about their process. How about the process of our country? The process of democracy? What they said to Neil was, "We can't prevent you from talking to him." Not exactly an invitation to speak up.

Still, everybody wants to tell their story. The key is getting people comfortable, in a place where they feel you're going to have respect for their story. That you're not looking to zoom in, like when you used to film interviews, get someone worked up emotionally, then zoom in when they cry. I feel like Columbo. I'm the guy with the rumpled trench-coat and they take pity on me, so they tell me things.

PM: Your films also tend to include reporters as another sort of storytelling device.

AG: I try not to have interview subjects only be commentators, but to integrate them as characters in the story. So even somebody like Tom Frank, who wrote a book about Abramoff, is part of the story -- I mean, he had been a College Republican! And as he wrote the book, he also developed a kind of relationship with Jack, and that comes across. When I started the film, none of the participants would talk to me. So I thought, I'm going to have to make this a film about detectives. As I got further into it, it wasn't as much about them, then it was cops and robbers.

PM: A moment that crystallizes that is when (then Washington Post reporter) Sue Schmidt is listening to the tape of her conversation with Abramoff, trying to decipher it.

AG: Right. I loved hearing that tape, but also Sue talking about it, as you can hear him kind of dissembling as he talks. And she did have an old school analogue tape recorder!

PM: That brings up another question, the relationship between news reporting and documentaries.

AG: My biggest concern about the near-demise of the newspaper is not so much the "news," as it is investigative reporting. I have tremendous respect for investigative reporting that digs down deep, not only to find motives but also the mechanizations. Now, what blog site can afford to send a reporter to work on a story for six months.

PM: The cops and robbers dynamic describes your other films too.

AG: Oh yes, they all start with a crime. Enron starts with a suicide, this one starts with a murder, and in effect, Taxi to the Dark Side also starts with a murder: it's Dilawar's disappearance, though you don't know at the beginning that he's been killed. I happen to like that structure: it's intriguing. Everyone wants to know what happened and why.

PM: It sets up for pieces to come together later.

AG: Right. It takes you away from what I would call and-then history, which is just rigidly chronological. That misses the bigger picture because it's just a catalogue of events.

PM: This other structure allows for complexities and shifts in character. No one seems wholly "bad" all the time, except maybe Dick Cheney.

AG: (Laughs) Right, we came to say, "There's only one bad apple -- Dick Cheney!" But you're right, that's what interests me, that process, when you cross the line.

PM: Or if you recognize the line?

AG: I think the line keeps shifting. One of my favorite novels is The Lake in the Woods by Tim O'Brien: it's all about self-deception. You think you're a good person when in fact, you've become a bad person.

PM: And as he draws so much from his experience in the Vietnam war…

AG: Yes, it was a very corrupting war, because the reality of it was very grisly and messy, but the image they were desperately trying to portray was, "We're defending a democratic government." It was a horrible government. But we're supposed to pretend what we're doing was right and just.

PM: As today, in Afghanistan.

AG: There are a lot of parallels that don't work, but that parallel is dead-on. We’re in a position of having to prop up a very corrupt government and not take it on too hard.

PM: Well, where can the United States stand morally, at this point, having been and still being part of so many dark sides?

AG: And so often caught in a lie. There's a book called Sentimental Imperialists, and I think that's America's problem. We practice this kind of imperialism that's colored by a belief that we want to bring democracy or freedom. It is very dissimilar to the British, who were just straight-out imperialists.

PM: Though your films -- including Gonzo -- have focused on corruption during Republican administrations, the problems we're talking about do seem systemic, more broad-reaching.

AG: Well, this film in particular is a Republican story.

PM: Is there an ideological component?

AG: I think so. I think there's evidence that the radical right-wing Republican ideology is corrupt. I'm not talking about conservative Republicans who want smaller government or want to spend within our means. What these guys were saying, people like Tom DeLay and others, is, "Look, there's really only one value, the value of the market." So what's wrong with buying and selling congressmen? The market will determine their value. If you're willing to pay a lot of money for a congressman, that means the congressman's good. Ha! Now that’s a pretty weird ideology, if you think about it.

PM: Or not so weird: it's what the Supreme Court just ruled.

AG: But I think we have a kind of radically activist, right-wing Supreme Court, and they're following that ideology. It's the embrace of the law of the jungle. There's nothing moral about the law of the jungle. It may be "nature," but it's not moral. That's the big mistake that they make. They substitute self-interest for morality.

PM: Ralph Reed being a case in point (in Casino Jack).

AG: I'll say! He is the slimiest character in this whole story -- because he is so clearly aware of what he's done, but he's just a liar. He says, "I have no idea I was getting money from casinos," like Captain Renault in Casablanca. And the ridiculous fig leaves (the lobbyists) would give him, like robbing money through the lifeguard as head of the think tank, as we tell in the film. Then he stands up and says, "Gambling is a scourge," when he's getting $6 million from casinos.

PM: But as preposterous as the lifeguard story or Bernie Madoff's may be, they're just the ones who are caught. They're not deviant, but symptomatic.

AG: That's right. So long as they're getting paid, everyone goes along. Occasionally you have the people who, usually after they’ve been caught by authorities, will say, "I fucked up. What I did was wrong." And for people like me, it's important to speak with them, because they're willing to tell the story. The reason I hate the whole bad apple thing is because it allows us as human beings to completely disengage, to say, "I'd never do anything bad, because I'm good."

PM: And so to Spitzer. In recent interviews (say, in Vanity Fair), he doesn't seem especially introspective, at least not in public.

AG: He's not. And that's a very good point. One of the things than may make him a great crusader for economic justice is the very thing that makes him not only unreflective but at times, a bully, in a way that's utterly unnecessary. A bully and also someone who took on the fatal flaw of the people he was crusading against, to be able to say, "The rules don’t apply to me."

I have to sit back and think, "What kind of cognitive dissonance is going on when he knows he's got big powerful enemies, uses his best friend's name, and he starts using this escort service?" what was he thinking? Well, he obviously wasn't thinking: remember that great New York magazine cover. In the film, Karen Finley (whose 2008 show, The Impulse to Suck takes on Spitzer's pursuit of prostitutes) says, "We want our politicians to be gods, but they're human beings. They're as weak and as strong as the rest of us." The problem was, Spitzer had held himself out as this figure above reproach.

PM: But again, however unusual his pre-revelation self-declarations might have been, his story, his weaknesses and his willingness to indulge them, is not exceptional.

AG: He doesn't corner the market on hypocrisy, certainly. Look at David Vitter. He was phoning prostitutes during roll call votes. But Spitzer was efficient. He divided his activities: "This is my government and this is my hooker problem."

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