EXCLUSIVE: What's the Difference Between Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods? Oscar-Winner Alex Gibney Explains
Ask anyone what the difference is between the scandal-plagued tandem Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, and they might think you're about to deliver a punchline. Ask Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, however -- whose new documentary about the disgraced New York governor will appear this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival as a work in progress -- and the distinctions are no joke at all.
Gibney sat down with Movieline today for a wide-ranging discussion, most of which focused on Casino Jack and the United States of Money -- Gibney's definitive, devastating survey of the corruption scandal around lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (The film opens May 7 and will be the focus of next week's Moment of Truth feature; check back here April 29 for more.) But Gibney was forthcoming as well about his hotly anticipated Spitzer doc, which features unprecedented access to the subject himself and, along with My Trip to Al Qaeda and a segment of Freakonomics, is one of three Gibney efforts screening the TFF 2010:
Busy as you are, how did you decide you wanted to make a film about Spitzer?
When the scandal broke, I was immediately intrigued by the story. I was intrigued by it for all sorts of reasons. I had followed his career, and I've always been interested in the political economy, obviously. And the timing of his fall seemed very odd. But also, over the dinner table, everybody was talking about this as a reflection of the issues that men and women have -- particularly men in powerful positions -- and fidelity and infidelity, prostitution versus affairs... It was like a constant. So I thought, "This is an important story, and for reasons that go beyond some kind of simple thematic thing."
So I called my friend Peter Elkind, whom I'd worked with on the Enron film. Peter had done a few profiles of Spitzer and also knew him at Princeton. So we kind of decided we'd do two separate projects: He'd do his book and say whatever he wanted to say; I'd do my film and do whatever I wanted -- but we'd help each other. And one of the ways he could help me was to introduce me to Eliot. So I met him, and I talked with him a number of times. And after talking to him a number of times, he agreed to be interviewed on camera.
Having done it once, then we did it again, and then we did it again. And then we did it again. And I think the next to the last time was maybe the hardest because I said, "I really need to go back and ask you some hard questions again, because I'm not sure if the first time around you really reckoned with them." And so that's what we did. I think by that time he was really willing -- and really understood -- that in a true portrait of him, if you're going to participate, one of the things you're really going to have to do is allow yourself to be asked the tough questions and try to reckon with them honestly. Whether he did that or didn't do that will be up for the audience to decide. But I think he did try. So I've got to give him credit for that. It's a lot different than the Tiger Woods media-managed apology, which disgusted me, frankly. I found that just repulsive in the extreme.
Well, everything about it was so packaged. There was no human affect. There was no communication. It was like a commercial. What ever happened to the old question-and-answer dialogue with people? If you're going to engage me, I can always say, "Look, I have my privacy. Screw you." But when you stage manage a press conference like that -- in which it's not even called a press conference -- and all of us on behalf of Tiger are supposed to play our parts in this sort of stage-managed tableau so that he can get back to his corporate sponsorships? It made me ill! There's no honesty there. It's all dishonesty -- it's a charade.
There's all sorts of reckoning about how far we should push ourselves into the private lives of public figures, and I think maybe the balance has gone too far. But if you're going to answer the questions, then answer them. If you're not going to answer, then fine. Just say, "No, thank you."
Would you make a film about Tiger Woods?
People talked to me about doing a Tiger film. I don't know, though, that I will. I don't know if I'm interested in it. And it's one of those things, too, where you almost have to judge the subject. You can't ever go into a project asking the subject, "Will you or will you not cooperate?" I had to make the decision to make the film about Spitzer without knowing he was going to cooperate -- but hoping that he would. But still, that's the goal: to say to someone, "Look, cooperate because I will treat you fairly." And I think I can stand up pretty much say to anybody that I've done that. And there have been a lot of people who haven't talked to me.
With the Spitzer doc, how unfinished is "unfinished"?
It's not that unfinished. I'd say it's pretty close. In a way what I'm doing here is making manifest what I kind of did at Sundance with Casino Jack. We thought we were finished; we showed it in front of an audience that was not cajoled into being there -- a disinterested audience. And we learned a lot. So I expect that by showing it Saturday night we'll learn a lot.