The Armstrong Lie

December 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Lance Armstrong, Reed Albergotti, Betsy Andreu
Directed by: Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”)

For documentary films, it’s always a possibility that the idea filmmakers have going into a specific project will change once the cameras start rolling and the story begins to evolve with each new interview and revelation. No one knows this better than Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) who initially started making what would ultimately become “The Armstrong Lie” as a film about cyclist Lance Armstrong’s return to the sport after retiring four years prior. Instead, Gibney, and the rest of the cycling world, is sideswiped by Armstrong when he finally admits, after years of denial, that he, in fact, used performance-enhancing drugs for a majority of his professional career. The film Gibney thought he was making was turned on a dime and a new one was born. In “The Armstrong Lie,” Gibney reviews Armstrong’s career – specifically the hundreds of times he blatantly lied to peoples’ faces about drug usage – and packages it into an unflattering analysis of one of sport’s most contentious stars.

While “The Armstrong Lie” is a very well made documentary from a technical aspect, it does seem like Gibney is forced to save face and go with what he’s got to finish his project and include the bombshell Armstrong dropped earlier this year (which, come on, wasn’t really big news to begin with since most people assumed he was juicing like everyone else in the sport). Gibney, however, beefs up the narrative in some nice places. For example, Gibney interviews Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, who testified that she once heard Armstrong admit to his doctor that he used performance enhancers. Like most of “The Armstrong Lie,” the hearsay is something followers of the doping allegations already knew, but it is interesting enough to watch Andreu, after begin called a liar herself for so many years, get a little vindication (even if Armstrong himself still won’t admit that specific confession to his doctor happened in the presence of Andreu).

With so many doping scandals being revealed over the last decade in professional sports, “The Armstrong Lie” is just another jab to the ribs for sports purists who wish the athletes so many look up to for their talent would realize how their dishonesty is negatively affecting the game. If anything, Gibney has provided audiences with another dense cautionary tale about the dark side of sports that has, unfortunately, become all too familiar. Gibney may have been undercut by talk show queen Oprah Winfrey (she was the first to officially reveal the big lie during her interview with Armstrong), but because Armstrong basically ruined his original film, he seems to have a lot more urgency to make sure the full story is finally pieced together into one very comprehensive albeit discouraging exposé that Armstrong can’t deny.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

May 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed
Directed by: Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”)
Written by: Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”)

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has given audiences front row seats to witness the backdoor dealings at Enron (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), learn of the secretive torture practices during the George W. Bush administration (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), and delve deep into the head of infamous journalist Dr. Hunter Thompson (“Gonzo: The Life and Works of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”).

In his newest doc, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” Gibney puts a heated spotlight on former congressional “über lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, who is currently serving time behind bars for fraud, tax evasion, and bribery. Although Gibney is unable to get Abramoff on camera, the story unfolds like a classic political thriller with very few holes (if any) needing to be filled.

From his rise to power in Washington D.C. to his career of scamming lenders and ripping off Indian casinos, Gibney dissects Abramoff’s into an intriguing character without painting him as the leeching antagonist most know him as. Instead, Gibney, like he has done with his other film, presents the facts of the narrative without preaching and does it in a way to keep viewers – even those who are not politically inclined – to keep watching, thinking, and questioning the motives of elected officials in the U.S.

While it is a disheartening tale of greed and corruption at the highest levels of government, “Casino Jack” is thoroughly informative and quite baffling at times. Like a bloodhound on a paper trail, Gibney has fashioned together a solid documentary that both liberals and conservatives alike should see for themselves, even if only for research on what not to do when you get to the big show.

Alex Gibney – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

March 11, 2005 by  
Filed under Interviews

You’ve heard the names. You’ve seen the faces. You may even have stopped on a congressional hearing or breaking news story while flipping through the channels in the last four years. No matter what your experience is on the subject matter, the name Enron is sure to elevate discontentment even for those who only recognize the corporate moniker from episode No. 298 of “The Simpsons” where a rollercoaster amply tagged Enron’s “Ride of Broken Dreams” is ridden into the ground by some of the cartoon characters.

What Alex Gibney, 50, producer/writer/director of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” accomplishes in his documentary is filling the plot holes in a series of events, which started in July 1985 when Houston Natural Gas merged with InterNorth to form Enron to the start of criminal trials in November 2004, and offers a chronological, dramatic and comical take to the tactlessness of Enron’s business executives.

“[Enron] is a very complicated story,” Gibney told me at Austin’s downtown Hilton Hotel during the 2005 South By Southewest Film Festival. “The toughest part was to be able to boil it down so that people could understand it. I think a lot of people were aware that something bad happened at Enron, but most people didn’t know what had happened.”

With that understanding, Gibney transformed names like Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Cliff Baxter and Andy Fastow, and business terms like “mark-to-market accounting” (a method that allows companies to report estimated value on a contract as a profit, instead of when actual cash comes in) into household dialect for even the most novice of stock market players.

“It was important to me to be clear enough about what happened in the financial scandal,” Gibney said. “The Enron story at the end of the day is not really a story about numbers or special purpose entities. It’s a story about people. And that is what ultimately pulls the film together.”

Finding the inspiration to shoot the documentary after reading the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Gibney said he was determined to find the roots of greed in American culture and what it takes for someone to deceive others for their own benefit.

“I had never thought about making a film about Enron, but when I read the book it was what got me interested,” Gibney said. “It was such a powerful human drama. It’s a dramatic story about people and how they went wrong.”
Although he feels that Enron executives did not sketch out their business plan with fraud in mind, Gibney said through his intense research for the film he could see Lay and Skilling, the lead antagonists of the Enron debacle, “looking for whatever loopholes they could find and taking advantage” of the system.

“It was a progressive process,” Gibney explained calling Lay and Skilling’s dealings “economic terrorism.” “They created this financial illusion that got worse and worse and worse. So when a harsh light was cast onto it, the whole thing came crashing down.”

Today, Gibney views corporate America as a “cutthroat” business that is built on the ideals of self-indulgence. Although he says the “kill or be killed” ideology is the backbone to many corporations, it’s not a surefire way to end up like the Enron corporation if a business is run in that aspect.

“The system is based on greed,” Gibney said. “The key is, ‘What is the balance?’ Every business is designed to make as much money as possible but the question then is, ‘Is that what it should all be about or does business have to have values? Does business need to worry about its employees or just its executives?’ These are key questions in what kind of society we are going to make. In Enron they set up a system where if you trampled over people you got hugely rewarded. They took greed further than anybody else had ever taken it.”