Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is misguided on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. Suffice to say, most film critics are slavishly praising it, as sure a case of liberal media bias as you’d find in, say, NPR or the New York Times.
Gibney, whose previous documentaries include the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is so outraged by Spitzer’s fall from grace he can’t come up with a unifying theme for his movie.
So he cooks them together into one narrative soup. Client 9 defends prostitution as a profession that saves marriages and claims Spitzer’s actions were just about sex and therefore meaningless. The real crime, according to Gibney, wasn’t a sitting governor breaking the law but the nasty Republicans who leaked the story to the press.
Only he can’t prove that last part.
Spitzer “was going to be our first Jewish president,” an unseen talking head offers in the film’s opening moments. And perhaps the voice is right. The so-called “sheriff of Wall Street” did seem like a shooting political star. A sharp, take-no-prisoners Democrat from New York, whose zest for law enforcement could easily pry away a few million Republican votes.
Early on, there’s hope Gibney will paint a political portrait missing from the 24/7 news cycle. We hear Spitzer describe how his father would wallop him in Monopoly at the age of 10, the eagle-faced politician chuckling at the memory.
He grew up in a family where tough political subjects were debated around the kitchen table. That’s where his zest for the progressive agenda took shape. He went on to believe it was his duty to use the law to arrest the bad guys and change the way society worked for the “little guy.”
Client 9 registers when it details the financial shenanigans Spitzer disrupted both as New York’s attorney general and, later, its governor. Gibney patiently breaks them down in a way even the financially illiterate can grasp and puts a human face on the damage they did.
The film soon loses its focus.
Gibney falls back on trite story tells to reinforce his points of view. The jazzy soundtrack gives way to the chestnut “Love for Sale” as the escort service enters the narrative. And when it’s time to dump on the bankers Spitzer targeted, we see reams of money being printed as if it were the devil’s handiwork.
The film hints that prostitution is a perfectly acceptable line of work for the right go-getter. We hear one escort say her Johns treat her better than any boyfriend or date she ever had. Another swears her fellow escorts are whip-smart and know exactly what they’re doing. At the end of the day they’re providing an invaluable service — allowing married men to have a sexual release without making them resort to cheap affairs.
When ABC’s Diane Sawyer asks Spitzer’s now famous escort Ashley Dupre some tough questions, the documentary tsk-tsks Sawyer for assuming the moral high ground.
Why, let’s give these girls a medal and call it a day.
Gibney seems oddly intrigued by details of the case that would only matter to Dupre fanatics. Did you know her original song on MySpace got seven million hits after the news of Spitzer’s affair hit the news cycle? We even see a clip of her singing on Fox News during an interview with Geraldo Rivera.
And here‘s more compelling material about how Spitzer acted during his escort trysts from one of the girls at the service: “He was hiding. He didn’t want anyone to know who he was.”
The unnecessary details don’t end with the escort service. Here’s one of Spitzer’s former co-workers describing the governor’s wife, Silda.
“She was amazing to work with … one of the nicest people,” a Spitzer aide confesses.
The film alleges that Spitzer’s escort woes came to light thanks to the many powerful enemies he made along the way. Gibney doesn’t paint a convincing case here. Instead, he uses speculation and other tricks to put the pieces together. But so what? Any powerful politician is going to have enemies — or ideological foes eager to see them fall. Folks like former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg and veteran New York politician Joe Bruno were all too happy to see Spitzer’s disgraceful exit.
Gibney gets Spitzer on the record for the movie, but he clearly doesn’t ask the questions any thoughtful interviewer would. Let’s trot out a few quick ones any freshman journalism student could whip up during a coffee break:
What were you thinking while you were committing these acts? Didn’t you realize your entire career could evaporate at any moment? Do you have a self-destructive streak? How have you tried to heal your marriage? Do you think prostitution should be legalized? Did you at any point tell yourself, “No more. I have to stop this before things spiral out of control”? Are you considering a second chapter to your political career?
Instead, Spitzer coughs up airy platitudes about his fall from grace like, “It goes back to the days of Greek mythology. … It’s not a new story.”
Long story short — Spitzer made enemies with his combative style and gave them a huge opening with his unchecked libido. Sounds like he was ill equipped to be governor, let alone president.
Client 9 plays the “it’s only sex” card in the waning moments, lumping Spitzer in with fellow sinners like President Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Newt Gingrich. It’s such a sloppy argument that Gibney seems embarrassed to even bring it up, so he gives it precious little screen time and hands the dirty work over to performance artist Karen Finley.
The only truth Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer shares is that one of the most salacious political stories of the past decade can be rendered a bore in the wrong hands.