Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Directed by Alex Gibney
One of the rare moments of levity in Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job comes with the appearance of embattled ex-NY governor Eliot Spitzer, whose history with the high-end escort services also frequented by the movie’s high-finance villains made for a queasy, funny moment of silence. In Alex Gibney’s Client 9, that relationship is probed in-depth, along with the right-wing/big-business collusion that propped up his downfall. It’s a slight portrait next to Ferguson’s dizzyingly thorough deconstruction of the financial crisis, but its tabloid zeal for uncovering the unseemly details of Spitzer’s case give it an entertaining sheen all its own.
Gibney is nothing if not a politically engaged documentarian: Gonzo charted the political life of Hunter S. Thompson as a thoroughly American tragicomedy, Taxi to the Dark Side made a case against American imperialism through the story of a single man’s death, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room managed to communicate the epic hubris and greed that led to financial disaster in Florida. Client 9 attempts to chart Spitzer’s downfall as emblematic of the collusion of political and financial forces in the US, but often it’s the baser aspects of the case that are being more effectively communicated, which stops the film from being quite as effective as his previous works.
During his eight-year tenure as the Attorney General of New York, Spitzer became known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street:’ a fierce investors’ advocate unafraid to ruffle feathers or make political enemies. After a landslide win that made him Governor of New York, Spitzer was often mentioned as a future Presidential candidate. That all ended just over a year into his governorship, when it was revealed that Spitzer had procured the services of a young prostitute named Ashley Dupré, an aspiring singer who was all too willing to enter public life. Client 9 tries its hardest to unravel the conspiracy that led to the uncovering of Spitzer’s trespasses, but Gibney’s inestigation has its limits: it’s clear that Spitzer was singled out for political reasons by zealous Republicans out for blood, but the film is unable to prove the explicit connection between Spitzer’s Wall Street foes and their Washington collaborators.
Gibney has an easier time getting to the bottom of the Emperors’ Club, the escort service that provides much of the film’s entertainment value. In fact, some of Client 9‘s best moments have “Angelina” (whose contribution was recorded, then reproduced by an actress to protect her anonymity), the escort who had Spitzer as a client with the greatest frequency, recounting her experiences both with Spitzer and the government interrogators looking to bring him down. At one point after determining Spitzer’s identity, she recalls their conversations, even mentioning that she’d pass along her complaints about how New York was run. Another escort claims to have left conventional dating behind, as she’s become “spoiled” by her clients.
Other bits of color are less interesting, and serve to damage its sense of seriousness. The doc makes clear that Dupré was the media’s liaison to the case but not a substantive player, but nevertheless takes the time to make clear her opportunist status by showing us hey Playboy centerfold appearance and snippets of her vacuous would-be chart pop. Her rendition of “Let It Snow” on Fox News provides an appropriately acidic parting shot to punctuate the whole ghastly narrative, but the other potshots feel a little cheap.
At the center of it all, there’s Spitzer himself, who, near the film’s end, admits that ultimately the blame must be placed on his shoulders, regardless of who may or may not have uncovered his sins. Once a man in a unique position to affect positive change, he had to watch as his policies were rolled back and the free market was unencumbered once again, not much more than a year before the financial crisis took hold. Client 9 is a solid, not great, look at tragedies great and small, the hubris that caused them, and the real people caught in the machinations of history.