The 17th-floor offices of Jigsaw Films, on West 26th Street in Manhattan, are a hive of activity. On a late September afternoon, there are about 15 people working in the office, two editing bays, and a young guy who looks a little alarmed when he realizes that his efforts to pull a salad from the fridge are blocking Gibney's path. Gibney's overall affect is stern and imposing – he looks a bit like Vladimir Lenin – but then he'll laugh, revealing a gap-toothed smile, and he suddenly seems about as menacing as Alfred E. Newman. In his office overlooking the Hudson River hangs a brutal 2010 review of his movie about the downfall of New York governor Eliot Spitzer, 'Client 9,' from Kyle Smith of the 'New York Post.' "I wonder how Gibney operated the camera while on his back," Gibney reads aloud, and howls with laughter.
While contemporaries like Errol Morris might take five years between features, Gibney will sometimes complete more than two a year. In 2010, he did 'Client 9,' as well as 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money,' about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He also released a film version of Lawrence Wright's play 'My Trip to Al-Qaeda,' and still found time to contribute a segment to a film based on the best-selling book 'Freakonomics.'
He laughs when I ask him if he's the first documentary filmmaker to get rich. "I wouldn't say rich, but I can make a living," he says. "It's hard to make a living doing documentaries. Frankly, if it takes you five years to do a film, and that's the only film you're doing, you're in trouble."
In many ways Gibney has industrialized the documentary world, a multitasker in an industry known for single-focus auteurs. He gives his editors great leeway to imprint the films with their own personal vision, like his longtime editor, Alison Ellwood, who directed Showtime's Gibney-produced rockumentary 'History of the Eagles.' And he is not averse to using the reporting and footage of others as building blocks for his own films. 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' relied heavily upon the Rolodexes of the two 'Fortune' reporters who had written the book upon which the film was based. 'We Steal Secrets,' his WikiLeaks film, was defined by footage of Assange shot by Australian journalist Mark Davis in 2010.
"Alex has turned his company into a bit of a factory," says his onetime collaborator, Eugene Jarecki. "But the big debate is, is factory a bad word? A problem that anyone will face if they make too many things is that by nature, it is hard to control the quality of what you're making. But I think Alex would argue that this world is so ripe with indignities and he wants to get through them as quick as he can."
Whatever his motivation, Gibney likens his outfit to more of a "juggling operation. Like a lawyer, I have a lot of cases, and you never know exactly how the cases are going to work and who you're going to get to talk to you when. I never crank out films in a hurry. I have a bunch of great teams, and I just don't let anything out of the shop until I think it's really good."
Since Gibney found his métier at a fairly advanced age – directing his breakout Enron documentary at 52 – what might look like workaholism could simply be his trying to make up for lost time. Either way, Anne DeBevoise, his wife of 31 years, a yoga instructor in Summit, New Jersey, where they live, sees very little of her husband. Neither does Ella, the youngest of their three kids and the one who still lives at home. "It's an issue," he says.
Over the years, Gibney has earned a reputation for being as hard-charging in making his films as the films are themselves. He battled with director Eugene Jarecki over control of 2002's 'The Trials of Henry Kissinger,' with Gibney complaining that Jarecki tried to outpace him so he could seize creative control. Jarecki counters: "The notion that Alex Gibney could be burned out by anyone would have been like trying to outrun Jesse Owens and being surprised by the results. Alex is a competitive guy. It's a part of what's great about him, and it's also to some extent what he may struggle with."
Even winning an Oscar – for 2007's 'Taxi to the Dark Side' – was laced with acrimony. After it failed, in Gibney's opinion, to capitalize on its Oscar win – it made less than $280,000 in theaters – the director filed for arbitration against ThinkFilm, the movie's distributor. Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's founder, blames the documentary's subject matter, and says he feels betrayed by Gibney's accusation that he left the movie in the lurch. "Crusaders are important, and Alex is a crusader," Urman says. "The world needs them, but you have to be careful when you get in business with a crusader, because what if he decides to crusade against you?"
Those who sign up to participate in a Gibney film can never be sure if in the final cut Gibney will be crusading with them or against them. Not long after a prostitution scandal forced him to resign the governorship of New York in 2008, Eliot Spitzer agreed to sit for Gibney. "I took a calculated risk that he would allow me to express my views and those who disagreed with me could express theirs," Spitzer says. "How he would filter it and put it together, I did not know." Spitzer was rewarded with 'Client 9,' a film that, while not glossing over his black-socked adventures with call girls, makes a compelling case that his fall was choreographed by plutocrats like AIG chairman Hank Greenberg and Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who were embittered about getting ensnared in Spitzer's investigations while he was attorney general.
Unlike Spitzer and his movie, Abramoff is not a big fan of 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money,' a film that crucifies him in every way imaginable – as a bilker of Indian tribes, whose money he happily hoovered while privately referring to them in emails as "troglodytes," and, suspiciously, as a primary beneficiary of a gangland-style murder. "I don't mind being the villain," says Abramoff, who says he would have talked to Gibney had cameras been allowed in prison. "But the film was a wasted opportunity. He could have used my case to highlight corruption that's systemic, but instead he went off on this tangent with me. It was filled with ideological attack and personal opprobrium. He primarily focused on the right."
Gibney doesn't see himself as a predictable leftist, citing the hysterics his WikiLeaks film caused among liberals because it was highly critical of Julian Assange, particularly in the way he dealt with the accusations of rape by two Swedish women. "Just because I admire the idea of WikiLeaks doesn't mean that I support Julian's assassination of two women," he says. "Why did I have to sign up for that?" His sensibility, he says, transcends politics. "I think of my films as not necessarily political but more moral," he says. "Between my father, my stepfather, and my mother – they all felt pretty passionately about the importance of standing up and doing the right thing, and none of them were suck-ups. What motivates me is usually abuse of power."