Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Review - Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Alex Gibney's documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer delivers exactly what it promises. Through press conference footage, old campaign commercials, and candid interviews with the people involved including Spitzer himself, Client 9 chronicles Spitzer's career from his fierce days as Attorney General tackling Wall Street corruption to his battles in Albany with the New York State legislature and finally his fall from grace after a prostitution scandal. The film implies that Spitzer's downfall was, at least in part, conceived by enemies Spitzer made both as Attorney General and later as Governor for combating the same powerful business interests that made such a mess of America's economy. Former New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, former New York Stock Exchange Director Kenneth Langone, and controversial Republican political consultant Roger Stone are among those Gibney implies helped orchestrate Spitzer's downfall by vindictively aiming a federal investigation in his direction.

The interview with Spitzer is filmed in a darkened house with Spitzer's back to, fittingly, the bottom of a staircase. From the very beginning you can sense a hubris in Spitzer. Twice he compares himself to figures of myth and ancient tragedy. The analogies are not without basis, but one has to wonder about someone who is willing to publicly compare himself to such characters. For the most part when he discusses his legislative battles in Albany or his fights with Wall Street, he is characteristically lucid and unflappable, seeming defensive only when questioned about the angry threats he was known to issue to rivals. In fact, Spitzer has such a likable demeanor I immediately doubted the claims people like Langone and Bruno made about the former Governor - such as Langone claiming Spitzer had said he was going to drive a spike through Langone's heart - until I saw just how defensively Spitzer reacted to the accusations. When asked about anything even remotely connected to his infidelity, no matter how hard he tries to hide it, the deep well of Spitzer's humiliation and sadness bubbles to the surface.

You learn quite a few surprising facts during the course of Client 9, including the extent to which the FBI ignored other aspects of their prostitution investigation while focusing all their attention on outing Spitzer, and the infamous Ashley Dupré's relative minor importance to Spitzer as a lover. While Dupré was characterized as being the "Governor's Hooker" in the scandal's aftermath and has taken full financial advantage of it, in truth Dupré and Spitzer only had a single rendezvous while Spitzer's most visited escort remained anonymous to the public. She still remains relatively anonymous in Client 9. She apparently spoke to Gibney but only on the condition that her face, name, and voice not be revealed, so rather than film her in shadow and supply a harmonizer, Gibney hired an actress to read a transcript of the escort's interview.

My friend Sarah pointed out after we watched the movie that Gibney's use of the actress bothered her, and I realized it bothered me too. It isn't that I necessarily distrust the account just because it comes from an actress's mouth. Sure, it leaves Gibney open to criticism because he or someone else could have just written a script for the actress to read, but if Gibney had opted to instead film the real escort - only hidden by shadow, with a disguised voice and no name - you could make the same charge. It bothered me because overall Client 9 feels more stylized than it should be, and the use of the actress is part of that stylization. I would not say Gibney chose style over substance, but that there were times when the style made me stop caring about the substance. I felt like sighing a little, for example, when an interview with former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg opened with a contrived, crookedly askew zoom-in and out on Greenberg. I grew tired quickly of what sometimes seemed like an endless stream of stills of Spitzer looking pointedly tragic. The stylization certainly didn't ruin the film for me, and I usually enjoyed it, but there were weaknesses to it.

In a sense you could say Client 9 is less about the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer, and more about how the rich and powerful in our country operate and how their wrath manifests when they're roused to action. With the evidence provided in the film, it's difficult to imagine that - if not necessarily people interviewed in the film like Langone and Bruno - someone had it in for Spitzer and sicced the dogs on him. The FBI certainly didn't seem to accidentally stumble upon his infidelity.

Regardless, what I find surprising is that as angry as I should feel towards people like Langone, Bruno and Stone, I don't. And I should. Even if they're utterly guiltless of any machinations against Spitzer, their unapologetic glee about a downfall that marked one of the darkest moments in New York's recent history is enough to justify wanting to push their respective faces through the backs of their respective heads. But I don't. Gibney's candid interviews with Langone and Bruno, in spite of their wealth and power, make them seem like nothing more than angry old men and it's amazingly easy to feel sorry for them. When Greenberg, towards the end of the movie, refers to his stock being worth "virtually nothing" and a second later defines "virtually nothing" as roughly $100 million, my envy is outweighed by my pity for a man who has as much grasp on reality as an LSD-soaked coma victim.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is a revealing tragedy not only about the all-too-human former governor of the Empire State, but of the kind of ugly power that is brought to bear when the empire is threatened.

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