Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is back in the public mind these days with a new show on CNN – and a new feature documentary about his rise and fall. One might also add that the popular new CBS show “The Good Wife” is nourishing a Spitzer-esque storyline of a politician, disgraced after being busted with a hooker, now seeking a comeback.
“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” from well-known filmmaker Alex Gibney, is now available in select theaters as well as On Demand. It’s compelling filmmaking, to be sure, but I don’t buy one of its main arguments.
“It is, to a certain extent, a classic tale,” says Spitzer early on, who sat five times for interviews with Gibney. Indeed, Gibney is at least partially interested in Spitzer and his downfall for the ancient narrative it seems to be and the fundamental tensions it holds. That is, a war between our angel and animal selves.
Gibney traces Spitzer’s rise to political prominence in New York, where as attorney general he earned a reputation as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his aggressive prosecution of powerful financial firms and their executives. But it earned him more than a reputation; it also earned him enemies.
Several of these gave Gibney interviews, notably Hank Greenberg of AIG and Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and former director of the New York Stock Exchange. Each had different reasons to revile Spitzer, but the more forthcoming is Langone.
“I’d like to think I’m not a vindictive person. And a basic tenet of my faith is forgiveness,” says Langone. “The most harm that Eliot Spitzer’s done to me is I’m defying my faith. I can’t forgive him. I should, but I can’t.”
This soul-laid-bare moment is an example of why documentaries retain their power as a genre. So much of the “Client 9” subtext is caught in that single remark: Some of this country’s most powerful men hated Eliot Spitzer. So it would seem natural that they would enjoy his comeuppance.
Gibney runs with this understood tendency, and that decision accounts for too much of the two-hour film. Gibney, thankfully, wanted to offer more than a salacious profile of Spitzer’s prostitution patronage. But Gibney, in his clear effort to show how the financial world would have appreciated a dethroned Spitzer, goes too far.
“Client 9” devotes most of its last act to exploring who might have been behind the push to bring Spitzer down. And to be clear, Gibney does argue that the prostitution scandal involving Spitzer was handled differently from, say, the “D.C. Madam” case, which also involved high-profile politicians.
Clearly, there was no shortage of powerful people who disliked Spitzer and would enjoy emotional and/or professional benefits from his dramatic exit from power politics.
But even Spitzer himself says on camera, “I brought myself down.” That should be the thrust of the project, but it is not. Instead, we’re treated to a push among Spitzer defenders that what really happened was “just sex,” and so let’s move on. The implication seems to be that his work on other fronts (e.g., prosecuting the fraud on Wall Street) should somehow immunize him against the consequences of his own illegal, immoral and hypocritical behavior. Spitzer’s a smart guy – smart enough to know that it shouldn’t, and it didn’t.
It’s not completely irrelevant to ask if Spitzer’s enemies were seeking revenge. But how or why would an affirmative answer be news? After all, this is a classic tale.
Gibney is one of our best documentary filmmakers, and “Client 9” is further evidence of his mastery of form. It perhaps works best when Gibney is laying out the psychological and metaphorical terrain of Spitzer and his world. Toward this end, Spitzer recounts playing Monopoly with his dad, who, on occasion, would foreclose on his son to teach him hard lessons.
“Client 9” doesn’t feature that much about the escort services, but enough to get an R rating. Spitzer himself tightens when the subject comes up. He’s much more at a loss for words when discussing paid sex than when discussing policy.
Ashley Dupre, the Spitzer call-girl who received most of the media attention at the time, plays a more minor role here because the documentary argues that another girl, “Angelina,” was Spitzer’s more consistent companion. Though “Angelina” gave Gibney an interview, she declined to let her voice or image be used. Gibney’s solution: Transcribe the interview and hire an actress to play the part.
When it’s over, “Client 9” has revealed some new information, but if it possesses any real power, it’s as a reminder of a simple truth: What goes around, comes around.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual material, nudity and language.
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Featuring: Eliot Spitzer; Maurice “Hank” Greenberg; Joseph Bruno; Kenneth Langone.
The movie’s website is here.