Classical tragedy meets the tabloids in Alex Gibney’s irony-enriched “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” which replays the ignominious crash-and-burn of the former New York governor as if it were “something out of Greek mythology,” as Spitzer himself ruefully puts it. But the docu also plays like a political thriller and that aspect — along with the sex, politics, warped humanity and faint aroma of redemption — should help the Magnolia release do healthy arthouse biz. Cable exposure is assured, via co-producer A&E.
The prolific Gibney (whose output this year will include “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” “Freakonomics” and “My Trip to Al Qaeda”) doesn’t give Spitzer a free ride; the so-called “Luv Guv’s” transgressions are brought home through the images of his wife and children, seen in news footage. (None was interviewed.) Gibney is characteristically relentless in his research and interviewing. Among the revelations in the film, which was shown in virtually the same version as a work-in-progress at Tribeca this year, is the debunking of media fave Ashley Dupre’s claims that she was Spitzer’s special friend when the ex-reformer was patronizing the Empire Club VIP escort service (where Spitzer was known as “Client 9”).
Less sensationally, but more importantly, Gibney has managed to piece together a fairly credible conspiracy theory behind Spitzer’s downfall, leading to the very people who were in the crosshairs of Spitzer’s crusade against Wall Street when he was state attorney general.
Having done all this work, Gibney doesn’t want it to go to waste; hence the docu’s tendency to go off on what seem to be monumental digressions before getting back on its main track: Spitzer’s journey from being the bete noire of investment bankers to the darling of New York Post headline writers.
For all the information here, Gibney is unusual among investigative documentarians in that he never forgets he’s making cinema. The shooting of interviews via multiple cameras by d.p. Maryse Alberti, particularly when Gibney is grilling the penitent Spitzer, is effective and striking. The way the film accessorizes the talking-head format with visual asides (a grinning gargoyle on a downtown building, a Chinatown fishmonger beheading a sea bass) make metaphorical use both of New York and of the romantic/absurdist/Sophoclean nature of Spitzer’s story — which, as Gibney no doubt knew before a frame was shot, was never going to be a simple Clintonian saga about a Type A politician having a zipper crisis.
Spitzer was far more careful than Clinton, and hardly the deviant player suggested in early media accounts, at least according to the woman Gibney calls Angelina. It was Angelina, not Dupre, who was the Luv Guv’s “gal pal,” as the Post might have put it, and who provides previously unreported info about Spitzer and the investigation that felled him. Although Angelina agreed to talk to Gibney, it was on the condition that he not use her voice, face or real name; thus, as Gibney explains dutifully ahead of time, she is played onscreen by an actress, the wonderful Wrenn Schmidt, who makes the transcribed interview come alive.
Although much of what “Client 9” has to say is up for the viewer to interpret, the film scores some undeniable points. For instance, whenever the federal government bothers to launch a prostitution investigation, those prosecuted almost never include the clients. Gibney cites the “D.C. Madam” case, in which only proprietor Deborah Jeane Palfrey was indicted (she eventually was found to have killed herself in jail), despite a client list that included U.S. Sen. David Vitter. But Vitter was a Republican, and so were the feds — notably U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Michael Garcia, whose investigation of the Emperor’s Club targeted only one suspect: Spitzer.
Gibney gets to almost everyone (he passes on Dupre), and they’re far from a tight-lipped group. Ken Langone, financier and onetime head of the compensation board of the New York Stock Exchange, talks about the ex-governor’s downfall as if it were a personal victory, and the movie suggests it was: When Spitzer sued NYSE director Richard Grasso in 2004 over his $140 million compensation package, Grasso pal Langone took it very personally, perhaps enough to have sicced political operative Roger Stone on Spitzer’s tail (which, admittedly, was in places it shouldn’t have been). Stone talks, too, as does Hank Greenberg, former head of insurance giant AIG — the role of which, during the nation’s recent/ongoing economic disaster, makes Spitzer look like a lost prophet or visionary.
Which is clearly Gibney’s intention. Spitzer is currently in the process of redeeming his public self, through pro bono legal work and an upcoming CNN panel-discussion show (plus an appearance as a commentator on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”), and “Client 9” won’t hurt the cause.
Tech credits are terrific, notably Alberti’s often gothically accented cinematography, and the sound mix. An exception is the music, the cues being sometimes ill-considered and too obvious; pic would have been fine without “Love for Sale.”