Monday, November 29, 2010

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

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer ****
Directed By:
Alex Gibney.

Eliot Spitzer had it all. As Attorney General of New York, he had become one of the biggest names in the Democratic party in America. Had his stint as Governor of New York gone as well as his time as Attorney General, he could have easily parlayed that into a run for President at some time in the future. But as we all know, it didn’t go that well, and after just over a year in office, Spitzer resigned when he was connected to a prostitution ring as a john. Charges were never laid against him, but the accusations were true – Eliot Spitzer spent thousands of dollars – his own, not the taxpayers – on high-end prostitutes. His political career was over immediately, and he became a national joke – mocked by late comedians and practically everyone else.

The question everyone wants answer, of course, is why? Why would Spitzer jeopardize everything he had to have sex with prostitutes? Alex Gibney’s new documentary, doesn’t really answer that question. The only person who really knows is Spitzer himself, and although he gives a rather candid interview for the filmmaker, he never really answers that question. Perhaps even he doesn’t know. He admits it was stupid and he admits that his downfall is entirely his own fault, but he never really comes out and says why.

What Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer does do – which makes it one of the best documentaries of the year – is paint Spitzer’s rise to the top, and the enemies he made along the way, and how that rise, and those enemies, contributed to his downfall. True, he had sex with the prostitutes, yet it seems at least plausible to suggest that if he hadn’t made such powerful enemies earlier in his career, his mistakes later – that in fact really have nothing to do with his job – may have never had come out.

Spitzer made a name for himself almost immediately after becoming Attorney General in New York. Seeing that the SEC was either unwilling or unable, to do anything about the corruption on Wall Street – corruption that eventually led to the economic crisis America is now faced with – Spitzer went after them hard. He forced the CEO of AIG out of the company, and he attacked the head of the New York Stock Exchange, who got a $140 million retirement bonus, among other cases. Wall Street hated him from the beginning, but he became a hero to many Democrats. He made powerful enemies – not just because of the cases he took, but also because his confrontational style. He seemed unwilling to compromise, and wanted everyone to agree with him. When you are Attorney General, you can get away with this – but once he became Governor, it was much harder. But he seemed to be finding his footing when the scandal hit, and he was forced out. A career with limitless potential flamed out.

Gibney does a great job finding the right people to interview – there seems to be almost no one involved that Gibney was not able to convince to speak with him - although there is no interview with Ashley Dupree, the prostitute who became a household name because of her involvement with Spitzer. That doesn’t matter too much though, since she has been practically everywhere else talking about it. And besides, as Gibney found out, she wasn’t even Spitzer’s “regular” girl – he spent only one night with her, but dozens with a different girl. This girl did talk to Gibney – but didn’t want her name or voice in the movie. In the films one misstep, Gibney hires an actress to play this prostitute – using his original transcript of the interview he did. The result gets the information out there, but rings false because, documentaries really shouldn’t be using actresses, and not only that, the actress they did cast isn’t very good (she sticks out like a sore thumb even before Gibney reveals that she’s an actress).

But Gibney does do an excellent job at exploring the different worlds that are involved in this story. You want to know what it’s like to work in a high priced call girl ring. Client 9 has your answer. He has interviews with several of the prostitutes, who hardly seem like the victims prostitutes are normally portrayed as in movies (then again, these are the high end girls, and not the street walkers who are poverty riddled), and even an interview with the giggly “Madam” who ran the company. It also paints the Wall Street world as one of entitlement, which is why they hated Spitzer so much, because he was willing to challenge them. Some of these Wall Street tycoons even go so far as to blame Spitzer for the economic crisis – saying if he had let the CEO of AIG stay in place, they never would have collapsed (they were well on their way there though when he left). The politics involved in being Governor of New York is also portrayed – a State Government that is generally viewed as corrupt, Gibney even gets an interview with Spitzer’s biggest rival in State politics – a State Senator who has an unearned air of superiority concerning Spitzer when you consider he was indicted for corruption not long after Spitzer left office.

I suppose the real question Client 9 asks is how much worse was Spitzer’s crime than any of the other ones we see, both in terms of the people in the movie, and other scandals outside? Bill Clinton is still as popular today as ever, despite the fact he has oral sex in the Oval Office with an Intern. Newt Gringrich had numerous affairs, and left his wife while she was in the hospital recovering from life saving surgery. There has even been other politicians implicated in prostitution scandals, who have kept their jobs. And isn’t the corruption of politicians, and what is happening on Wall Street, more important than what Spitzer did? There are legitimate questions to be asked about why Spitzer got caught in the first place. The official story, about a money order than drew suspicion, doesn’t quite sound right. And Spitzer’s enemies either claim to have reported this to the FBI, or seem to know a hell of a lot more about it than anyone else did, before the scandal broke.

Yet none of this really changes the facts of the case. No matter what role his enemies played in his downfall – if any at all – they wouldn’t have been able to do anything if Spitzer hadn’t of screwed up. He spent time – not just once but multiple times – with prostitutes. He brought upon his own downfall. All Client 9 really asks you to do is to open your mind and see the whole picture – and put Spitzer’s crime into perspective. He screwed up – big time – and he is to blame for what happened to him. But is what he did any worse than what his rivals did? It’s an interesting question, and makes for a fascinating documentary.

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