Tribeca film fest is 'the Alex Gibney festival'

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Jane Rosenthal, the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, has taken to calling this year’s edition "the Alex Gibney festival."

Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker of "Taxi the Dark Side," has three films at Tribeca: his much-anticipated, though unfinished Eliot Spitzer documentary, his adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s play "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" and "Freakonomics," on which he is one of five directors.

If that wasn’t enough, Gibney’s documentary on lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," will be released theatrically May 7.

"Maybe the reason I’m doing so much is that I’m afraid it’s going to stop," says Gibney. "So I want to get it in while the getting’s good."

The getting has been exceptionally good for the 56-year-old Gibney, who edited films in Hollywood before turning to documentaries years ago. He also previously directed 2005’s "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which he based on the book by the same name by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.

He again collaborated with Elkind for the Spitzer film, which was made in tandem with Elkind’s recently released book: "Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." The former New York governor granted four interviews to Gibney.

"What I do is the cinematic equivalent of the nonfiction book," says Gibney. "A good nonfiction book reads like a thriller because it’s put together with a sense of narrative and drive and style and, also, you can feel the voice of the author."

Gibney’s documentaries have shown the influence of Hollywood storytelling, too. He has an expressionist visual style, roughly in the mold of Errol Morris.

For the Spitzer film, he interviewed an escort named "Angelina" who didn’t want to appear on camera. So he hired an actress to play her and read her lines, explaining his decision midway through the film.

Similarly, "Casino Jack" opens with an e-mail from Abramoff (now in prison) suggesting he make an action film instead of a documentary. The following scene recreates a mob hit.

"You have to build your story like you would a fiction story," says Gibney. "It should move you like a movie does. To me, that’s the biggest compliment that people can say: ‘Man, that felt like a movie.’"
But Gibney also pairs his storytelling with deep research, often leaning hard on journalists as "characters," as he calls them. His scripts are carefully annotated, he says, laughing, "sometimes for legal reasons."

Several of his films tackle seemingly un-cinematic, dense subjects. But by carefully following money trails and firsthand accounts, he synthesizes complex issues.

"The events I like to make simple and the people I like to make more complicated," he says. "I’m interested in taking simple perceptions about people and making them more complicated."

Gibney also has a reputation for treating sources fairly, which could help explain why Spitzer (on-camera) and Abramoff (off-camera) granted him access.

He turned down making a film on Bernard Madoff, he says, because he considers Madoff a sociopath, and therefore less interesting.

"What interests me are the nice guys — decent people, give to charities and do horrible things," says Gibney.

Born in New York and raised in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Gibney is the son of noted journalist Frank Gibney and the stepson of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a peace and civil rights activist in the ’60s.

After attending Yale University and film school at University of California Los Angeles, Gibney wanted to be a fiction film director. In Hollywood, he got "waylaid," he says.

Now, inactivity isn’t a concern. He’s working on a Lance Armstrong documentary, a Ken Kesey documentary and a contribution to ESPN’s "30-for-30" series on scapegoats — in particular, the Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman and the former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

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