Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Dir: Alex Gibney
The story behind Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is as classic and magnetic as they come. An evergreen exposé of one man’s political death at the clamoring hands of power, money, hubris, sex and betrayal, Alex Gibney’s documentary film will never suffer for an audience. American viewers are drawn to the sordid details of backstage politics and personal misdemeanors like moths to flame; because everybody loves a nice, juicy scandal…even if they’ve heard the details hundreds of times before.
When it comes to making movies, that’s all well and good, of course – I mean, that’s entertainment. But Client 9 approaches the potentially smutty territory of a political sex scandal with breadth, balance and timeliness, adding gravity to Spitzer’s private affairs and mercifully transcending mere tabloid coverage. This is a good thing: because, for all his attack-dog political styling and sexual indiscretion, Spitzer inspires an undeniable respect. We may not fully empathize with him, or necessarily want to have him over for dinner, but we don’t want to see him dragged across the screen in a forced re-enactment of his downfall, either. Gibney understands and achieves this balance, consistently painting Spitzer in a sympathetic light without ever urging us to forgive him utterly or dismiss his hubristic behavior.
For those of you who don’t already know, Eliot Spitzer made a name for himself as the Attorney General of New York city, where he became known as “the sheriff of Wall Street” for his merciless pursuit and deposition of corrupt CEOs. Looking back from where we sit now, still suffering the fallout of the global economic crisis, it’s easy to see Spitzer as a hero cut down in his prime (unless of course you believe former AIG C.E.O. Hank Greenberg, who claims that the recession and subsequent bailouts “would not have happened” had he remained at the helm). Spitzer’s determination to expose the shady dealings of executives like Greenberg to their company board members earned him loyal fans, a (temporary) victory over underhanded Wall Street traders and even the office of governor of the state of New York. Unfortunately, it also cost him dearly: and Spitzer took office burdened with terrifyingly powerful enemies – enemies poised and ready for the right moment to blast Spitzer’s rising star to smithereens.
That moment came when the feds (led by republican U.S. attorney Michael Garcia and probably aided by former New York Stock exchange board member and vicious Spitzer opponent Kenneth Langone) began investigating a high-end prostitution ring known as the Emperor’s Club. Soon, news of Spitzer’s involvement with prostitutes from the Emperor’s Club plastered the press and the once-untouchable White Knight of Wall Street found himself compelled to resign. Then as now, Spitzer honorably refused to point fingers at either the self-promoting prostitutes (like media sweetie Ashley Dupree), Republican power players or financial bigwigs who helped bring his private life under federal and public scrutiny. But honorable silence makes for boring documentaries; and that’s why Gibney takes his camera where Spitzer refuses to tread.
The promise of a steamy sex scandal may be the hook that draws audiences to watch Client 9; but the real sleaze and magnetism lies in the story of Wall Street’s white collar criminals, and the unsettling question that Americans have faced time and time again in recent years: when it comes to our personal and political values, who deserves the scandalous come-down more? Unscrupulous thieves and con-men with clean (or at least superficially tidy) public images? Or the crusading “Sheriff of Wall Street” with an unsavory dalliance in his otherwise impeccably wholesome private life?
Far from over-dramatizing this question or exploiting the prostitution and partisan rivalry involved in Spitzer’s case, Gibney instead investigates each angle, presents the information as he finds it, and – refreshingly – permits his audience to draw their own conclusions. Of course, with that said, the evidence suggesting not only Spitzer’s betrayal at the hands of his enemies but also the engineered timing of it all (Spitzer’s downfall and the eradication of his Wall Street regulations came just before the economic meltdown) is damn convincing. But in an era of over-heated, passion-driven “documentaries” rife with accusation and frenzy, Client 9 nevertheless stands apart. Gibney crafts a measured assessment of a classic story, re-framed for our particular cultural moment and packed with thought-provoking observations. As such, Client 9 ranks alongside other such retellings, literary and cinematic alike, adding to a tradition of cultural examination that we as a country need now more than ever before.
by Lauren Westerfield