The Seven Deadly Sins of Powerful Institutions: Films by Alex Gibney

“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

From the unquestionable belief in Catholicism, Scientology and other religions, to the idolatry of Lance Armstrong and other sports stars, to the trust we place in government and business, we thrust a lot of power to the institutions that surround us. Identifying_The_Seven_Deady_SinsThe documentary films of Alex Gibney examine these institutions and how they become corrupted.

Gibney’s resume is filled with films that cover a broad range of topics, including those noted above. The more I thought about it, his films are excellent case studies of the power of institutions and the damage that they can cause. They also align with the Biblical notion of the seven deadly sins:

  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Pride

I felt this analogy was apt since at least two of Gibney’s films look at religion. These films inevitably cover similar areas. For example, at least five of the following films deal with money and the greed that a capitalist system can generate. However, I will stick to one sin per film for illustrative purposes. I also provide the Biblical quote for each, to illustrate the original meaning. These films are largely set in the United States or involve Americans, but they also have consequences for everyone around the world.



Lust is an intense desire or need:

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28)

casino_jack_and_the_united_states_of_money_xlgThe film Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) looks at the career of Washington, D.C. lobbyist, businessman, and con man Jack Abramoff, who was involved in a massive corruption scandal that led to the conviction of himself, two Bush White House officials, Rep. Bob Ney, and nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers. Abramoff was convicted of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion in 2006 and of trading expensive gifts, meals and sports trips in exchange for political favors.

The lust for power is commonly concentrated at the intersection of government and business. Lobbyists like Abramoff are the mechanics that make such a relationship possible.

Although corporate lobbying is found in many countries, the United States is unique due to the scale of lobbying and volume of cash changing hands for political favors. Since the 1970s, lobbying activity has grown immensely in the United States in terms of the numbers of lobbyists and the size of lobbying budgets. A study in 2014 suggested that special interest lobbying enhanced the power of elite groups and was a factor shifting the nation’s political structure toward an oligarchy in which average citizens have “little or no independent influence”. Analyst James A. Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists was close to 100,000 and that the industry brings in $9 billion annually.

With so much money available, congresspersons are often focused on lucrative lobbying careers after Congress rather than on serving the public interest while in office. To improve this system, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, believes that a constitutional amendment should be written to limit political contributions from non-citizens, including corporations, anonymous organizations, and foreign nationals. Any system that incentives politicians to work for donations rather than their constituent’s needs is broken.



Gluttony, simply, is excess:

“for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Proverbs 23:21)

park avenue 2Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (2012) contrasts the excessive wealth inequality found in American society by contrasting the incredible wealthy from the incredibly poor who live on the same street of New York City, a few miles apart.

As of 2010, 400 of the richest Americans control more wealth than the bottom half of American households (150 million people). This level of inequality is tied to the rising gluttony by the upper class. Park Avenue profiles the uber-wealthy who live in the world’s richest apartment block, found in the Upper East Side of New York. It shows how the wealth that allowed these people (mostly old, white men) to afford such elaborate part-time residences was fueled by the corporate takeover of much of American life, reinforced by the cycle of political deregulation and corporate lobbying.

The film then moves along Park Avenue to another area of New York, which has felt the consequences of so much inequality: the South Bronx. As hinted by the film’s subtitle, a mental barrier that prevents many poor Americans for advocating for their basic human rights is the myth of the “American Dream,” which promises incredible levels of money and power for all. This dream is a big, fat lie. The few hundred Americans who get to live elaborate lifestyles are rarely made through hard work; they are more likely born into incredibly rich families or, like the Koch brothers who live at Park Avenue, make their fortune by destroying both the environment and worker’s rights. This is the new American reality and it’s not working for millions.



Greed is an excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness:

“Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:19).

enron_the_smartest_guys_in_the_room_xlgEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) was Gibney’s first major documentary. The film examines the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, which resulted in criminal trials for several of the company’s top executives during the ensuing Enron scandal; it also shows the involvement of the Enron traders in the California electricity crisis.

Enron is a revealing character study of corporate greed, illuminating many of the systemic problems that lead to economic destruction, like the 2008 Great Recession that followed Enron’s demise.

Enron was respected widely by the business community for its ability to amass profits, regardless of the cost. It was named as the “most admired” corporation by Fortune magazine for the six years running before causing the California energy crisis: Enron traders exploited the shaky foundation of the state’s newly deregulated energy market by shutting down power plants and exporting power out of the state to create artificial shortages that would drive up the cost of electricity to Enron’s benefit; Enron would make $2 billion off of the crisis. Like many corporations that found investment more profitable that actual service provision, Enron had moved from an energy supplier to an energy trader.

And it’s executive team made millions along the way. One example is Lou Pai, the CEO of Enron Energy Services. Pai abruptly resigns from EES with $250 million, soon after selling his stock. Despite the amount of money Pai has made, the divisions he formerly ran lost $1 billion, a fact covered up by Enron.

Enron is not an isolated incident. It is a story that shines a light on a rotten system. The industrialized countries of the world, the United States and beyond, have reconfigured their economies away from production to financial services. This has allowed corporations to make amazing profits while plaguing the world’s people with the ultimate risk when things go wrong (and they will always go wrong). The 2008 Great Recession proved this point when it came to sub-prime mortgage lending. Future financial crises (student loan debt or Chinese housing are two possibilities) will continue to provide evidence. Ultimately, we, all of us, who are paying for the greed of corporations, must act to change this. We must take the power back into our own hands.



Sloth is being disinclined to activity or exertion, not energetic or vigorous:

“The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:19)

Mea_Maxima_Culpa_-_Silence_in_the_House_of_God_posterFrom Ireland to Canada, people around the world are finally hearing the terrible stories of sexual abuse against children at the hands of Catholic Church priests. The investigative reporting by the Boston Globe in 2002 helped bring this global pandemic of child abuse to the American public’s attention. In Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), Gibney examines the issue as it pertains to one vulnerable group: deaf children.

Beyond the individual crimes of child molestation within the religious institution, the greater sin is the inaction, or sloth, by the Catholic Church and their efforts to hide the crimes. Mea Maxima Culpa examines the abuse of power in the Catholic Church system through the story of four deaf men — Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski — who set out to expose the priest who abused them during the mid-1960s. Each of the men brought forth the first known case of public protest against clerical sex abuse, which later led to the sex scandal case known as the Lawrence Murphy case.

Lawrence Murphy was a priest who taught at the former St. John School for the Deaf in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis from 1950 to 1974. He is believed to have molested up to 200 deaf boys before the mid-1970s. Local law enforcement agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, the St. Francis police, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney, were informed of the abuse in 1974 by adult graduates of the St. John School for the Deaf, but expressed doubts about the credibility of the allegations and the statute of limitations, and did nothing.

Catholics and non-Catholics should use these revelations as an examination of the power religious institutions wield. When given the holy responsibility of raising its followers children, the Church authorities committed abuse. When this abuse was revealed, rather than take action to stop or engage with law enforcement, the Church moved priests to new areas, allowing further abuse, and hiding past crimes. These failures were known and hidden by all levels of the Church, all the way to the highest office of the Vatican, who had the power and responsibility to act, but did not. The Catholic Church has forever lost its credentials as morally right and a divinely-inspired authority. If only every religious institution was also brought to justice.



Wrath is a strong vengeful anger or indignation:

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1)

taxi_to_the_dark_side_xlgTaxi to the Dark Side (2007), an Academy Award-winning film, focuses on the December 2002 killing of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who was beaten to death by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention and interrogated at the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram base. The story of Dilawar’s death is an examination of the wrath brought to many nations, including Afghanistan, by the United States, its military and, ultimately, all Americans following 9/11.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 signaled a new era in the world. The deaths of 2,977 Americans that day required a response by President Bush. The crimes against humanity committed on 9/11 could have been “approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects,” as Noam Chomsky has observed observed. Instead, the drums of war, led by the entire United States Congress to a chorus of ‘God Bless America,’ brought the American military to Afghanistan and then Iraq – another chapter in the history of American intervention in the Middle East.

Taxi to the Dark Side explores the background of increasingly sanctioned ‘torture’ since 9/11 in contradiction to the Geneva Convention. The use of sensory deprivation, is seen as acceptable and within the bounds of the law. Other techniques have required a redefinition of the word torture in order to avoid accusations of war crimes. The film also looks at Guantanamo Bay and how the same techniques were also implemented there.

America’s increasing reliance on military rhetoric and violence in its response to the attacks has not secured America’s safety. The doctrine of escalation of violence as a response to violence encourages terrorists and inevitably lead to further, and bloodier, attacks on innocents in America and around the world. The rise of the Islamic State following American occupation of Iraq for over a decade is a case in point.



Envy is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage:

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2)

going clearGoing Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) looks at another religious institution, Scientology, and its controversial history. Created in 1954 and based on the writing of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has become …

Based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear discusses several elements of the church, from its use of quasi-psychological counseling services to its infiltration of Hollywood to rampant human rights abuses. However, the key message I think that should be taken away from Going Clear is the church’s desire (its envy) to possess the legal status of a religion – and all the tax breaks and other financial advantages that come with that designation.

Hubbard is quoted as saying: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” He created a number of religious beliefs and practices, each with a price tag. Following Hubbard’s death, one man took the mantle of leader and the power it affords. David Miscavige is accused of intimidating, beating, imprisoning, and exploiting subordinates. Through intimidation, Miscavige was able to get the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to recognize Scientology as a religion in 1993. Elsewhere, Scientology is recognized as a religion in Australia, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, Croatia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and the United Kingdom. Its income is tax exempt in New Zealand.

On the other hand, Scientology has been accused of being “a business, often given to criminal acts, and sometimes masquerading as a religion.” In France, Scientology groups have been classified as a cult by some parliamentary reports. Organized harassment of people perceived as enemies and the group’s disconnection policy are two of the many controversial tactics this organisation uses to scare aware opponents and punish its adherents. Scientology is dangerous for society. And it doesn’t deserve government protection.



Pride is the quality or state of being proud – inordinate self esteem:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18)

armstrong lieUnlike the other films, The Armstrong Lie (2013) tells the story of a single man, an institution in himself: Lance Armstrong. In 2009 Gibney set out to film The Road Back, a documentary on cyclist Lance Armstrong’s comeback year after a four-year retirement from the sport. Three years later, on October 2012, a doping investigation led to his lifetime ban from competition, the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles and the voiding off all results from August 1998 onward, and the documentary was shelved. On January 14, 2013, three hours after his appearance on Oprah, Armstrong went back to Gibney to set the record straight about his career. Armstrong also resigned from his cancer-related foundation in 2012.

Lance’s pride got the better of him. For much of his career, Armstrong faced persistent allegations of doping. Armstrong denied all such allegations until January 2013, often claiming that he never had any positive test in the drug tests he has taken over his cycling career. Far from being a model of sportsmanship, Armstrong did everything in his power to win, including lying.

The idolatry of athletes and celebrities by the public is dangerous. Beyond the multiple doping scandals across multiple sports, athletes have been involved in domestic abuse, animal abuse, violence, crime and other damaging acts. The impunity athletes receive for their transgressions and crimes follows a similar trend for the wider world of celebrity. Celebrities, like athletes, receive immense wealth and respect from the public. These people are not perfect and should not be treated as such. They are far from the best role models. They should be treated by their actions and face appropriate consequences when committing wrongdoing.

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