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Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.


SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.


Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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Doctober Feature #2: Werner Herzog Triple Feature – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), The White Diamond (2004), and Wheel of Time (2003)

Werner Herzog is one, if not the most, influential documentary filmmaker of our time after a host of incredible and successful documentaries like the incomparable Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and his most recent Into the Abyss.  His eye for quirky interview subjects, beautiful scenery, relatively uncovered film subjects, and his penchant for asking really, really, really (REALLY) big questions of the audience have turned Werner Herzog into something of a cultural icon in the film world.  His narration is often lovingly mocked by those in the film community, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins has even made it a regular part of his act on television and podcasts.  The bottom line is that Werner Herzog is incredibly influential, and has given us some of the greatest documentary and narrative films of our generation, and deserves to be discovered by an even wider audience. These three films were blind spots in my viewing of Herzog’s documentary filmography, and even though I had different reactions to the lot of them, I’m incredibly happy that I finally sought them out.  If you’ve never seen a Herzog film, do yourself a favor and see Grizzly Man as soon as humanly possible.  It will change the way you view the art of documentary filmmaking.


Cave_of_forgotten_dreams_posterCave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary was originally released in 3D, and I’m very upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended.  In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes the audience on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the oldest surviving human art was discovered in the 1990’s.  The cave paintings were created over 30,000 years ago, and are very carefully preserved by the French government.  Due to the sensitive nature and rarity of the paintings, the general public is not actually admitted to exploring the cave, and even Werner Herzog himself was only able to take himself and three others to film the documentary.  Special walkways were created for those permitted into the cave, anything off the path being strictly prohibited.

The cave and the ancient art inside are absolutely beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine that these images were created so long ago.  Alongside the paintings are many bones of the now extinct cave bear, a relic and a major find in themselves.  Herzog manages to find experts in the archaeological field, interviewing them about various items found in the area surrounding the cave, including an ancient wind instrument, as well as a spear of sorts.  These experts in question are ridiculous and quirky and incredibly fun to watch in their brief appearances on screen.  One of the experts in question happens to be a perfume creator, and goes about finding cave openings in the woods using only the power his nose, another is openly mocked by Herzog about his spear-throwing abilities.  It is these interviews coupled with the imagery that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an absolute delight.  I would highly recommend this film to both Herzog rookies and seasoned veterans alike.  High recommendation.


The White Diamond (2004)

The_white_diamond_dvd

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Graham Dorrington, Werner Herzog, Dieter Plage

This is a film I knew almost nothing about before going into it, as it came out a year before one of Werner Herzog’s greatest successes, Grizzly Man. For a film I knew very little about, The White Diamond absolutely took my breath away, and quickly became one of my favorite Herzog documentaries.  In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog and his lovable voice take us on a journey into the dense rainforests of Guyana, a small country in South America.  There we find the film’s subject Graham Dorrington, an engineer who has created a terrific white airship (or blimp) in the shape of a teardrop;his mission is to fly the airship over canopies of the Guyana rainforest.  The film chronicles Dorrington’s past as an aeronautical engineer, covers the history of modern flight as a whole, and explores the beauty of Guyana’s vast rainforests, specifically taking a look at the massive Kaieteur Falls, as well as astounding white-tipped swifts, a species of bird which roost in an unexplored cave directly behind the falls.

Despite the incredible visuals and Werner Herzog’s always incredible narration and subtle humor, what makes The White Diamond a special documentary and a film to remember is the story of Graham Dorrington’s cinematographer and friend Dieter Plage, who died on an ill-fated ascent in the experimental airship.  Herzog films Dorrington telling the story of Dieter Plage’s accident and attempted rescue with unblinking and unflinching direction, never underestimating the weight of Dorrington’s words.  The story is incredible, tragic, and heartbreaking, and is easily one of the great moments in documentary film, period.  The White Diamond is one of Werner Herzog’s most underrated treasures, and a film I plan to revisit again for the visuals and the incredible stories featured throughout.  High recommendation.


Wheel_of_time_posterWheel of Time (2003)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: The Dalai Lama, Werner Herzog

Before the impressive White Diamond came Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel of Time, which I knew even less about, but unfortunately wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with that film.  Wheel of Time is once again narrated by Herzog himself, taking us on a journey to through Asia to meet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the time was suffering from rather poor health.  Herzog covers two ill-fated Kalachakra initiations, one in India, and the next in Austria, presided over by the sick Dalai Lama, as well as the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet; considered by many religions to be a sacred place.

Wheel of Time unfortunately didn’t resonate with me the same way previous Herzog documentaries have done, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The subject material isn’t something I’m particularly interested in, but that hasn’t stopped me before.  I think the biggest reason for my disconnect is Werner Herzog himself, who is incredibly respectful in his chronicling of the ill Dalai Lama, Buddhist traditions, and the Buddhist people themselves.  Not that this respect is a bad thing in any way, but Herzog refrains from using his trademark dark and subtle humor throughout the film’s short run-time, instead opting to cover the events in a much more deadpan style.  Fortunately the visuals throughout the film are more than worth the price of admission, with several breathtaking moments being caught by Herzog’s sharp eye.  One of my favorite scenes featured Buddhist monks on their pilgrimage, giving money to the poor who remain unseen behind a large fence – with the exception of their arms.  Wheel of Time has a lot to say about Buddhism as a whole, and beautifully covers some important and notable ceremonies of the faith, but unfortunately it didn’t move me the way I wanted to.  I enjoyed my time with Wheel of Time, but none of it resonated with me in any way – unlike most of Werner Herzog’s documentary films.  Even though the film did not personally appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a delight to watch, nor does it mean you won’t get anything out of it.  If you’re interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, give this a shot.  Recommended.

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