This weekend, as you search for a movie to watch, you can either go see The Armstrong Lie or stay home and pick one of approximately 14 billion options available on streaming over a variety of services, be it Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, or other sites. Every Friday, Vulture tries to make life easier by narrowing it down to a handful of heartily recommended options. This week, we dive into the filmography of prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, with his explorations of WikiLeaks, Hunter S. Thompson, and one of the most diabolical corporations that has ever existed.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
As The Fifth Estate, 2013’s fictionalized account of the WikiLeaks origin story, quickly vanishes from theaters, Alex Gibney’s documentary account acts as a reminder of how significant Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are to recent history. In We Steal Secrets, the prolific filmmaker, who has churned out several docs a year after winning an Oscar for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, maps out the intertwined lives of the Australian hacktivist and the 23-year-old United States Army soldier who crossed paths on the web. Through talking-head interviews and thorough research, Gibney unearths tragedy on both sides: Manning (then Bradley) is completely misunderstood by his fellow soldiers, taking solace in an AIM stranger who would later turn him in to the feds; Assange has his own downfall, beginning as a soldier for transparency and ending his arc as a public figure drunk on power. Gibney constructs his movie like a cyber-thriller, eliciting heart-pounding excitement from instant messenger transcripts. (Available on Netflix)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
One of the few Gibney documentaries to actually praise its subject, Gonzo snorts a line of coke, jumps in a red Cadillac, and barrels through the life of Hunter S. Thompson with all the rhythm and zest of the author’s work. The filmmaker liberally splices in home movie footage, clips from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and readings provided by Johnny Depp, the torchbearer of Thompson’s mainstream legacy. Unlike in many of his films, Gibney’s narration takes a back seat to Thompson, who through the magic of editing appears to be commenting on his own story and reacting to talking-head interviews — it’s all wonderfully gonzo. Thompson’s collective make regular appearances, including writer/artist Ralph Steadman, who tells the hilarious tale of the first time he and Thompson took drugs together. More fascinating is Thompson’s time on the 1972 campaign trail, his subversive nature fully weaponized to take down Nixon and champion McGovern in the pages of Rolling Stone. (Available on Netflix)
Inspired by the 2005 nonfiction book of the same name, this documentary enlists a handful of filmmakers to examine social patterns under the lens of economic theory and statistics. Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In), Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) all lend their services in analyzing everything from the relationship between a person’s name and their financial success, to the ripple effect of Roe vs. Wade on urban crime rates. Gibney also takes on a segment, “Pure Corruption,” delving into an enthralling world of yaochō (match fixing) in sumo wrestling. Peeling back the layers of the honorable Japanese sport reveals an unspoken tradition of cheating: Wrestlers paying off opponents so they can hit the amount of season wins required to earn their participation fee. When it seems like Gibney has fallen as far as he can down the rabbit hole, yaochō whistle-blowers start turning up dead. “Pure Corruption” adds a bit of shock to a colorful documentary. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Gibney’s 2005 film is a “making of” documentary on the most diabolical American company of all time. That the ill-fated energy company was built on a foundation of lies that ultimately crumbled its entire infrastructure is well-known thanks to mounds of press coverage toward the end of 2001. Less obvious is how deep its fraudulent behavior ran and for how long. If anything works against the movie, it’s the breadth of Enron’s infractions and the limited length of a feature film — no amount of time can get to the bottom of why anyone would think deliberately causing the 2000 California energy crisis would be a good idea. Throughout The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney cuts back to a videotaped hearing involving Enron exec Jeffrey Skilling, during which he sweats profusely while trying to explain his actions. It’s pleasant schadenfreude, though Gibney clearly wants us to leave this one enraged. (Available on Hulu, Amazon Prime)