Gibney grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his mother, Harriet, a divorced writer who was education director of Children's Hospital. His father, Frank, was a journalist and one of the country's foremost experts on Japan, who rose most mornings at 4 to write, and churned out nearly a dozen books as a result. It was a quality his son came to admire at a young age.
Then in 1969, when Alex was 15, the family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, after Harriet married William Sloane Coffin, a Presbyterian minister whom she'd had an affair with early in her marriage to Alex's father. Coffin's job – as chaplain of Yale – doesn't do justice to his superstardom at the time. From Yale's pulpit, he championed every liberal cause of the day – civil rights, opposition to the war in Vietnam, nuclear disarmament, gay rights. 'The Nation' called him "the clear heir to Rev. Martin Luther King." Watching his father and stepfather, Gibney learned firsthand what real competition looked like. Coffin and Frank Gibney died within days of each other in 2006, and their obits appeared on the same page of 'The Washington Post.' Only Coffin's appeared in that day's 'New York Times.' Gibney says: "If I believed in the afterlife, I'd say somewhere smoke was coming out my father's ears."
Life with Harriet and her celebrated new husband wasn't easy. "There was a lot of tension because Bill was such a larger-than-life figure," Gibney says. "She was a volatile character, and he was also volatile, but he overshadowed her." The fact that they were both alcoholics didn't help. "My mom could be brutal when she was drunk," he says. In what became a tabloid headline of the day, in their 1979 divorce proceedings Harriet testified that during one fight, the famous pacifist had delivered a karate chop, which resulted in Harriet's suffering a hairline skull fracture. This was unsurprising to many who knew them socially. "We all wanted to hit her," one of Coffin's best friends told his biographer.
Luckily, Tiger, as Alex was known then, was spared a lot of this, first shipping off to prep school in Connecticut, and then following in the footsteps of both his father and his stepfather and enrolling in Yale. He wasn't particularly engaged in politics on campus. "We were sort of alienated, actually," says his friend and classmate Peter Bull, who lived for two years with Gibney in his parents' house while they were on sabbatical. "There's an elite pomposity that goes on in the Ivy League, and it rubbed both of us the wrong way."
Given his stepfather's prominence on campus, it's easy to understand why Gibney headed in a different direction. "I was politically interested, but I wasn't politically active," he says. "To some extent I was wanting to go my own way and do my own thing. And organizations have always freaked me out." At Yale, he studied Japanese language and literature, like his father. His dad hoped he'd join 'Time' or 'Newsweek' after college. "Halfway through, I got tired of spending my time in the character dictionary," he says. "So I jumped ship and started to get interested in film."
To his family's great befuddlement, after graduating, he enrolled in UCLA film school and later dropped out when he was offered a job at the Samuel Goldwyn Company, which proudly distributed art-house fare from around the world and, less proudly, homegrown exploitation films. As "director of special projects," a title he invented, Gibney would cut trailers, recut foreign films, and occasionally lend his voice to dubbing. He worked on movies such as 'Shock Waves' ("All about Nazis that come up from the bottom of the ocean floor") and 'Invasion of the Bee Girls' ("They fuck guys and then they die"). Apparently, the stuff you pick up cutting jiggle films can be applied to more edifying topics. With his father's help, Gibney was hired to write and produce a 1992 PBS miniseries based upon Frank's work, called 'The Pacific Century.' "That was a huge break for me," Gibney says. "Suddenly I had a shot, and luckily I didn't fuck it up."
His success on the Asia series led him to producing high-profile series such as David Halberstam's multipart PBS documentary on the 1950s, and another about sex. But it would take another decade, when he was in his forties, for his biggest break to come along, when Martin Scorsese hired him to produce his seven-part PBS series 'The Blues,' which aired in 2003. Besides flinging open countless doors, the project gave him a front-row seat to watch directors like Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Wim Wenders working on their segments in a nonfiction style that tossed out the musty old PBS documentary. "Wim's film starts in outer space," he says. "I saw that anything is possible."