Ballsy and delusional

Oscar nominee Alex Gibney on propaganda, speaking truth to power and how his muckraking movie put him in the Enron support group

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney

Remember how Enron screwed California to the tune of billions? Director Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, more eloquently appraises this epic heist. So, how does a nomination affect an independent filmmaker, apart from letting him tag “from the Oscar-nominated director of …” on his film’s advertisements? For Gibney, it’s business as usual with a self-assured yet modest temperament. He spoke with SN&R from New York last week.

Nicholas Miller: How has the nomination affected you as a filmmaker?

Alex Gibney: I was gratified that the Enron film already—even before the Academy Award—brought me attention and enabled me to get new projects off the ground. In any case, the nomination has just enhanced that possibility.

What was your reaction when you found out about it?

Well, I let out a “Whoop!” Somebody called me right away from the nominations and told me, and I thought [pause] … I was ecstatic.

Documentary films, especially Enron …, have adopted a role that the media is not performing.

So long as TV news continues to not live up to their responsibility it’s good for me [laughs]. But, seriously, I think that the so-called new documentary is important because these are authored films, and sometimes authored films can do things that the traditional media cannot in a way of exploring complicated issues without being handicapped by what I regard as overly cautious modes of reporting. I think the role of the press should be to speak truth to power, not to be a megaphone for the powerful.

Have you been following the trial? (I suppose that’s redundant.)

I’m not at all sick of the story. I’m part of the Enron support group, the people who, having covered the story, can’t get it out of their system. So, I follow the trial every day.

What I found fascinating is two things: One is I think the prosecution is doing a pretty good job of trying to keep their argument simple, which is to say these guys, [Jeffrey] Skilling and [Kenneth] Lay, lied, and the company as a whole was a fraud. Skilling and Lay have surprised me to some extent because I thought they were both going to take what prosecutors jokingly refer to as the Sgt. Schultz defense, referring to the famous character from the TV show Hogan’s Heroes (the guy used to say, “I see nothing; I know nothing”). But they haven’t done that; they’ve done something very outrageous and very like … Enron. They have asserted that, in fact, Enron was a great company, and all the naysayers were just wrong, and the only reason that Enron collapsed was because of the work of a few short sellers and negative articles in the press. So, they’re saying, “Everything is great at Enron,” and so they weren’t lying to anybody; they were telling the truth. I find that a remarkably ballsy approach and also somewhat delusional.

It’s certainly bombastic.

It’s very like Enron. I think to some extent Skilling and Lay are convinced, truly convinced, that Enron was a great company and that they were great executives. For them to believe anything else would diminish their accomplishment and diminish themselves. So, they’re swinging for the fences. I’m not sure it will be successful, but it’s interesting, it’s outrageous, and it’s very much like Enron in its heyday.

Some might say the same of our current administration.

I would agree with that. I think the statement “We do not torture” is a remarkable statement given the evidence produced by so many military investigations. That is a statement that’s palpably untrue, and yet they continue to assert it.

Does this have more to do with appealing to the lowest common denominator than worrying about dissenting voices?

In part. I also think it’s an extension—and nobody should take this the wrong way—of a classic propaganda technique, which Joseph Goebbels called “the big lie.” The bigger the lie, the easier it is for people to believe it. You simply assert something over and over again, and you don’t back down. … So, I think it’s a conscious propaganda strategy, and I think it’s a very conscious theatrical strategy in the courtroom in Houston.

Care to comment on your chances of winning the Oscar?

Having done the Enron film, I’m generally pessimistic but eternally hopeful. I think it would be a great thing for the film and the issues that the film raises, but I’m also delighted to be in the company of all these other films. I think it’s a tremendous list.