With a perfectly timed release to be viewed in tandem with Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s excellent macro analysis of the root causes of and leftover systemic ills from the 2008 financial meltdown, Alex Gibey’s Client #9 details the fallout for one particular victim of the financial industry’s collective malignancy and capacity for destruction. The former governor of New York turned national joke turned CNN talk show host Eliot Spitzer.
Gibney is a fascinating filmmaker, with a bewildering output in terms of both mass quantity and startlingly inconsistent quality. After working for two decades as a television producer, he exploded on the documentary scene in 2005 with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a detailed and affable account of what would apparently be the tip of the iceberg for complex financial scandals. In 2007 he won an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side, an impassioned examination of interrogation techniques inspired by the life and work of his father, a former military interrogator. That same year he released the terminally dull Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in which Gibney seemed to be at a 118-minute loss for how to depict someone who has already been endlessly mythologized.
This year he released Casino Jack and The United States of Money, a turgid, lifeless attempt to further takedown lobbyist/convicted felon Jack Abramoff. Yet Gibney also contributed one of those most artful and thoughtful short pieces to the omnibus documentary Freakonomics in which he took the absurdly unfilmable subject of an economist’s study of cheating in Sumo wrestling and created a haunting and tragic snapshot of integrity ceding to avarice. He’s also directed a film version of Lawrence Wright’s one-man play "My Trip to Al-Qaeda". Client #9 continues to demonstrate that Gibney is far more comfortable with subjects who 1. participate on-camera and 2. perceive themselves as some kind of victim.
In Spitzer’s retelling of his own life, he’s victim of both of his own hubris and a dark cabal of powerful enemies. When he was elected New York State Attorney General, he transformed an office that had previously been used to reprimand unscrupulous car salesmen into a ruthless crime-fighting machine. They went after mobsters and high-level white collar criminals, often undercutting Federal investigations and always grabbing as many headlines along the way. Spitzer also did very little to discourage the whisper campaign that he would someday be president of the United States.
But in 2008 then-Governor Spitzer was linked with a high-class prostitution ring and overnight went from being a populist hero to a national joke. Never charged with a crime or named in any of the leaked affidavits, his inevitable resignation took out a visible enemy of many powerful people. And in the wake of several high-level Republican officials being linked with prostitutes and infidelity (with little to no repercussions to their political careers) tongues began wagging about the unfairness of it all.
Spitzer trots out some well-rehearsed statements about regret and accepting accountability that couldn’t be any less sincere. It’s clear he believes as long as his ideological opponents are also doing bad things that the world has treated him unfairly and there’s nothing weird about staying angry about it forever.
Gibney has always had a knack for bloating 90 minutes worth of content into two-hour films. If there is some personal life quota that needs to be met to justify the subtitle “The Rise and the Fall of” there are better choices than the nauseating sentimentality in reinacted scenes of an overbearing immigrant father who withheld affection (and didn’t let a 10 year old Eliot win at Monopoly) or unctuous lines like “Spitzer approached his work with the same veracity he did his tennis game”. And for as much time as we’re made to ponder the personal lives of his political enemies, there’s a glaring void in the confessional record when Spitzer summarizes how his decline has affected his wife Silda (or their three daughters) in the statement “this experience has made me realize the depth of her forgiveness.”
Still, when Gibney is at his best there’s no better investigative provocateur working in documentary film. He untangles the threads of an elaborate conspiracy that involves scorned financial industry tycoons, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, professional political hitman Roger Stone and the former Republican leader of the New York State Senate -- then gleefully confronts each of them with his findings. It’s a wonderful (and awful) illustration of the sick culture from which they all derive that they can each just smirk and crack wise about taking down Spitzer. Watching Client #9, it’s striking that the 2008 financial meltdown has become the anti-Woodstock for Baby Boomers with God complexes. Over the course of this film, no fewer than three people insist that if not for that pesky firing, being voted out by the board or resigning in disgrace then they alone could have prevented the collapse of this complicated system.
Gibney is much less effective in his handling of how much paying for sex actually brought about Spitzer’s downfall. He delights in depicting Ashley Dupre, the $2,000/hour call girl and the former Governor’s go-to gal, as a vacuous self-promoter. The film whirls through dozens of images of her partying in skimpy clothing and sneers when she goes on Fox News and lip syncs to Christmas carols. Simply to reveal that Dupre only one “date” with Spitzer.
Is it supposed to be a startling revelation that a New Jersey high school dropout turned call girl has made bad decisions in her life? Or perhaps the audience is supposed to draw a meaningful comparison to Spitzer’s life of luxury and privilege also leading to bad choices. At any rate, the film trots out a law professor who works himself into some serious pearl-clutching histrionics about the arcane law used to justify the investigation of Spitzer “never being used to prosecute Johns.” Good heavens! Conversely, the film showers respect and soft-lit adoration for “Angelina”, another (apparently, more favored) former call girl who is now working as a day trader (oh, the Circle of Life). She left New York when the scandal broke and is now going public via a private interview with Gibney that was transcribed and performed in the film by an actress.
These women are both victims of a bizarro chess game being played by men who take pleasure in crushing anyone who endangers the many zeros on their paychecks, political accolades or television appearances. And while a filmmaker's affinity towards the one who would give an interview is understandable, the lengths gone to make a joke out of Dupre seem more than a little redundant.
Still, Client #9 is easily counted in Gibney’s "win" column, the film is a fascinating, prismatic view into a culture where political power, moral integrity and privacy intersect in ways that impact the rest of the world.
Client #9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer opens November 5th in New York.