Eliot Spitzer born was to a well-to-do real estate tycoon in the Bronx, graduated from Princeton, earned his law degree from Harvard, launched the investigation that would bring down the notorious Gambino family on Manhattan, served as attorney general in Albany and, in 2007, was sworn in as governor of New York. Just over a year later, he would resign his office after being exposed for his participation in an illicit sex ring as “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.”
My awareness of Eliot Spitzer, until I saw “Client 9,” stemmed only from the sex scandal that forced him to resign as governor of New York. Alex Gibney provides the background of the man, particularly his single-handed investigation, as attorney general, into Wall Street improprieties that would foreshadow the banking crisis that gripped the nation in 2008. Spitzer, in his rise to power as NY state attorney general, then governor, made a lot of enemies, including New York Senate majority leader, Joe Bruno, a powerful figure in the state’s political machine. The former governor relished pushing the political envelop, no matter whose toes he stepped.
Gibney intersperses Spitzer’s political rise and fall with the details of the scandal that brought him down. He frequently used the escort service, The Emperors Club VIP, for upwards of $2000/hr (minimum two hours) and participated in interstate prostitution in violation of the 1910 White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act. When his involvement with the sex service goes public, those high powered men he stepped on before use their influence against Spitzer and his meteoric rise takes an equally meteoric downfall.
Eliot Spitzer provides the bulk of talking head interviews and freely discusses his public career and his private peccadilloes. He is a man bowed but not broken and the feel of comeback is palpable, if not spoken. Spitzer showed foresight in prosecuting companies like AIG and Bank of America long before the ’08 debacle – maybe the whole economic meltdown could have been avoided if the Feds had paid attention to the gun-slinging attorney general. Instead he stirred up the ire of men like Joe Bruno, “Punky Dick Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange and Hank Greenberg and they and others helped speed his later downward spiral.
“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” is an eye-opening documentary about the use and abuse of power and the title subject is a fascinating man to listen to and learn about. I give it a B+.
Many thought former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a man who sought to regulate Wall St. before it brought down the country's economy, was on his way to the White House after he became New York's governor in a landslide election. But that was before he became "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer."
Writer/director Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side," "Casino Jack and the United States of Money") follows up a weak segment in "Freakonomics" with a strong political documentary that both looks back and to the future. His main agenda is to build a case that Spitzer's Wall St. enemies in collusion with Republican dirty tricksters found Spitzer's weak spot and exploited it to derail his career. Although Gibney clearly champions many of Spitzer's accomplishments, he gains credence by presenting the man as flawed, someone whose pit bull aggression didn't always help his own causes. (In fact, in two days he took to consider resignation, no one from his own party stepped up to back him.)
Opening to Cat Power's bump and grindlike take on 'New York, New York," Gibney addresses the Emperor VIP prostitution scandal that caused Spitzer to resign from office right out of the gate, then talks directly to the man, Spitzer facing the camera Errol Morris Interrotron style. Spitzer, who is one of the featured talking heads in Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job" as the former Sheriff of Wall St., isn't always as calm and well spoken as he was there. When he's on the moral high ground, he's eloquent, but when Gibney pokes as his reasons for visiting high-priced call girls or presents some of his more inflammatory quotes, the former NY Governor often seizes up and stammers. Good on him that he allowed himself to go through this. The interview is intercut with highlights of Spitzer's political career - and the making of big league Wall St. enemies - leading up to the present.
Gibney's parallel history of the careers of Ashley Dupré and - here's another surprise - the girl Spitzer actually saw over and over, known as 'Angelina' and portrayed by actress Wrenn Schmidt speaking the woman's interview replies here (Gibney didn't want to put her in shadows and obscure her voice for fear of making her seem shady when, in fact, she appeared like a nice college girl who has ironically gone on to become a day trader). At first, these sequences seem awkwardly inserted, as if Gibney's trying to keep the salacious content within the viewer's consciousness because he doesn't begin their timeline in relation to Spitzer's, so it seems a bit arbitrary until Spitzer's story catches up. Dupré, who was only with the Governor the one time he was wiretapped, has traded on the notoriety ever since while 'Angelina' has done the opposite. Through Schmidt, she does debunk the black sock story, but it is a bit creepy to hear that she thought that Spitzer 'wanted to get his money's worth' on their first meeting. Her regard (and recognition of her client) warmed over time. Gibney also spends quite a bit of time interviewing Emperor VIP's giggling twenty-three year-old CEO, Cecil Suwal.
Better is his hand-in-hand handling of Spitzer's accomplishments, which are wed to his enemies. Former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg was caught cooking his books (and, as Spitzer argues, was removed from his position by his own board of directors) yet claims things would have been different if he'd stayed in office. Greenberg informs us that his worth, always measured by his AIG stock, is now 'almost worthless' at $100 million. Gag. Spitzer went after mutual funds being devalued in collusion with the Bank of America. He also went after former NYSE director Dick Grasso, whose $20 million salary and $140 million retirement payment Spitzer thought illegal for a not-for-profit organization. The man who set Grasso's payments, Kenneth Langone, Home Depot co-founder and a former NYSE director himself, really carries a grudge. His sharing with a television reporter what 'a friend' who happened to be in the post office when Spitzer was buying those money orders that ended up tying him back to Emperor, smacks not only of gloating but too much in the way of coincidence. Then there's U.S. Attorney General Michael Garcia, who told Spitzer to back off Greenberg so the federal arm could go after him and never did. Oddly, it was his federal arm that investigated Emperor, usually a state's responsibility.
Spitzer's abbreviated term as Governor was full of controversy, especially his relationship with Republican NY State Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno, determined not to play along with Spitzer's revolutionary ideas about how to run the state. That said, again, Gibney's relaying of the Troopergate story between the two men could have been more clearly laid out.
Still, Gibney gets so much right, his film remains engrossing throughout. It has it's funny moments too. The sense of astonishment that straight arrow Spitzer was brought low by a sex scandal is all tied up by the staff member who says his boss was so squeaky clean, that when he met Penelope Cruz and was asked about her later, he just said he could understand how some might find her alluring. Also refreshing is Gibney's continual use of New York newspaper headlines in favor of more routine news broadcasts, giving his film the tabloidy edge that cloaked the whole affair.
"Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" is a documentary that plays like a good drama. It's also blessed with good timing - could Spitzer, who is presently cohosting a talk show on CNN, make a political comeback? In these times of Democrats lacking cojones, it's easy to consider forgiveness.
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