More recently, there has emerged another school that, seeking neither to bury the narrator nor to praise him, uses him simply to inform and explain. A good example is No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson’s pitiless dissection of the Bush administration’s planning and execution of the Iraq war. The film uses no flashy graphics, no clever juxtapositions, no cinematic gimmicks, just a series of well-informed interviews intercut with vivid archival footage—all efficiently moved along by the unassuming but confident narrator (the actor Campbell Scott). In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney uses a lively mix of talking heads, news clips, stylish visuals, and arresting audiotapes to convey the greed and arrogance of this one-time corporate juggernaut and to show how it embodied the rapacious, roulette-like, deregulated economy of turn-of-the-century America. Such a multidimensional presentation would have been impossible, I think, without the use of a voice-over to make it all cohere.

Watching these films, I somehow felt I was witnessing the rebirth of old-school documentary making, the triumph of traditional journalistic values over pretentious art-house ones. Eager to test my hypothesis, I called Alex Gibney. On hearing it, however, he bristled. “I don’t necessarily think film should be like journalism,” he told me. A documentary “does something very different from an article, using images and sound rather than the written word to create a powerful impression.” At the same time, Gibney said, he has no patience for the resistance to narration. “There’s no excuse for not being clear,” he said. In his recently released Taxi to the Dark Side—a searing look at U.S. interrogation policies post-9/11—the use of a narrator helps not only to tighten the film but also to make it more lucid. “Why test an audience’s attention span by cutting together fourteen different sound bites when you can get the same thing across with five words of narration?” Gibney asked. Today’s filmmakers, he said, “are trapped in a paradigm,” one in which “fashion too often overcomes good sense. It seems to me perverse.”

It’s time to jettison the paradigm. But are the indies independent enough to do so? 


Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.