Alex Gibney Documentaries Take Unflinching Looks at Major Celebrities

Alex Gibney
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Alex Gibney, whose documentaries have garnered an Oscar and two Emmys, suddenly finds critics and audiences both admiring and attacking his latest films — all three of them. It’s hard to remember any other filmmaker, especially a documentarian, who has managed to become as prolific or as provocative.

The 61-year-old Gibney surprises me for another reason, too: Each of his new docs persuaded me to change the way I think about their central characters. Having been whipsawed by Gibney, I now see Tom Cruise, Steve Jobs and Frank Sinatra in a different light. And I’m not sure I always like what I’ve found out.

When I spoke with Gibney last week, I asked him the obvious dumb question: Don’t you ever sleep? I also asked whether he, too, changes his mind about his subjects in midstream.

Gibney assured me that, having read Walter Isaac-son’s admiring biography, he found himself venerating Steve Jobs prior to starting on his doc, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” which won accolades at the SXSW festival. However, the portrait that emerges in the film is that of an often nasty, manipulative monomaniac.

Before starting his Scientology expose “Going Clear,” friends in the film industry shared many Tom Cruise stories with Gibney, almost all of them positive. Cruise is the consummate professional, he was assured, a man who shows up on time and is friendly to colleagues. A very different Cruise is portrayed in “Going Clear,” however, which is based on the Lawrence Wright book about the world of Scientology. Instead we find the actor as the strident, doctrinaire benefactor of a cult that harasses and even imprisons dissenters, and which has built a multibillion-dollar real estate empire on the funding of its membership.

Which brings us to Sinatra: I have had several personal encounters with the late, great singer, some in my role as a studio executive, some as a journalist, and the only Sinatra I ever saw was the dark one — hostile and imperious, a man who wanted to convey danger. But the Sinatra I got to know in Gibney’s compelling four-hour HBO film, “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” has many other dimensions: He championed the rights of black entertainers, was loyal and generous to friends like Sammy Davis Jr., and courageously supported many unpopular causes. Politicians and segments of the press labeled him a gangster and a “commie” even when he toured with our troops overseas.

Gibney shrewdly shapes his empathetic Sinatra doc around long-hidden concert footage which, in the span of 11 elegantly produced songs, presents a moving memoir of Sinatra’s troubled inner life. The footage is augmented with candid interviews from Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall and others, who deal with Sinatra’s stormy relationship with the Kennedy family and also with gangster associates like Sam Giancana.

Robert Altman once confided to me that he often changed his attitude toward characters in his films in the middle of a shoot — a trait that drove his actors crazy. Gibney concedes a similar problem: He had actually completed a doc on Lance Armstrong before learning that the seven-time Tour de France champion was a fraud. He tore up his film and started over. His new version was titled “The Armstrong Lie.”

By the end of his process, however, Gibney delivers compelling portraits of memorable figures — an achievement that sets his films apart from other docs, in which the characters disappear amid the issues that surround them. Working with his staff of 10, Gibney has managed to maintain a remarkable level of productivity for his distributors, HBO, CNN and others. Will he launch into narrative features? “I hate the development process,” he responds. “Besides, I need to take a rest.”

I understand why.