I've never been an Alex Gibney fan but I generally always see his films because he makes documentaries about subjects that are usually of great interest to me.
In 2010, three years after Gibney won an Academy Award for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, a bold film about the torture and murder of an innocent cabdriver in Afganistan on a US base, Esquire opined that he could become "one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our time." Has it actually happened?
Along with Ken Burns, Barbara Koppel, Alan and Susan Raymond, and a few others, Gibney has certainly become one our most ferociously ambitious documentarians. On the night my friend Donny Markowitz won an Oscar for Best Song, Jack Nicholson told him, "Kid, when you win an Academy Award, this town pretty much bends over and spreads its ass for you" (or words to that effect), and since 2007 Gibney has been able to fully capitalize on the award, attaining the enviable and exceedingly rare position in the world of documentary film of being able to do pretty much what he wants to do.
A solid craftsman whose ambition and guile often exceed his actual talent, Gibney has accomplished this by making films about controversial can't-miss subjects that range from the mediocre (Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream) to the very good (Mea Maximum Culpa: Silence In the House of God), along with uneven films about musical and cultural icons like Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, and James Brown. Think what you will of him but perhaps his greatest contribution has been to make coherent films about very challenging subjects like Enron, Jack Abramoff, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and Scientology (albeit from a polemical point of view with an agenda that is decidedly leftist) but nothing he has done has ever really knocked me out.
Until now, that is.
Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, his two-parter being shown on HBO, is without doubt his best work to date.
From fade in to fade out, every choice works. The footage is magnificent. The songs are perfect signposts and epiphanies. The narration is a fine mix of people blending personal insight (family members like Nancy Sinatra, Tina Sinatra, and Frank Jr.) with incisive cultural and musical commentary from people like Terry Teachout and Pete Hamill (but where was Gay Talese??) and how much better of a formula to hear these people over picture rather than to see them. Perhaps best of all, Gibney gets completely out of the way and lets the material speak for itself. His style can get heavy-handed and there isn't a scintilla of any of his fingerprints on a single scene--always a hallmark of fine filmmaking.
The film ends with a historical montage of New York cut to the finale of Sinatra's great swan song, "New York, New York" (what else?) that is nothing less than stunningly moving (at least for a New Yorker), and one walks away breathless at the sheer magnitude of the man, his life, his art, and his times...
A great film that I can't wait to see again.