Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rough Justice

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Directed and written by Alex Gibney

Based on Peter Elkind’s highly readable book Rough Justice, Alex Gibney’s documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer compellingly recounts the New York governor’s fall after it was revealed he was seeing high-priced prostitutes. Gibney—whose earlier Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room also explored the consequences of hubris in men who think they're infallible—is sympathetic to Spitzer, building his film around a lengthy interview in which the ex-governor speaks sometimes engagingly and candidly (and other times evasively) about his meteoric career and subsequent fall from grace. But Gibney also approaches his material like any good investigative reporter, rooting out the back story of what happened to Spizter when, as governor, he resigned from the position that most experts saw as another stepping stone to his occupying the White House as our first Jewish president.

The usual explanation for Spitzer’s downfall is that a paragon of virtue was literally caught with his pants down: the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” who also busted prostitution rings, was himself busted as a high-class escort agency’s ubiquitous Client 9. Gibney calls out Spitzer for his arrogant attitude toward the many enemies he earned while going after Wall Street corruption as attorney general and Albany corruption as governor. But men in power (Bill Clinton and John Edwards most recently) usually think without their brains: although there’s no possible way they will be able to hide their behavior, they go ahead anyway, and end up pilloried in the press for their adultery.

Even though Client 9 doesn’t exonerate Spitzer for self-serving, embarrassing actions that could, in the words of one talking head, be used as an asset if he ran for political office in France, it also delves into the lives of his professed enemies, a surprising number of whom agreed to be interviewed by Gibney, who allows them to get more shots in at the man they loathe so much. So Wall Street bigwigs Kenneth Langone and Hank Greenberg, Albany mainstay Joe Bruno and political operative Roger Stone are shown gleefully frothing at the mouth as they reminisce about Spitzer’s fall.

Gibney also clarifies why the government went after Spitzer while investigating the Emperors Club VIP escort service. Although he technically broke the law, law enforcement officials rarely go after clients, instead zeroing in on those who actually own and run the agencies. In this case, however, with such a big fish caught in its net, the government went after the governor. It’s no coincidence that a Republican administration was in power in Washington, and helping snag the biggest Democratic star would help immensely.

Gibney tracked down one of the escorts, Angelina, who was really Spitzer’s favorite—not Ashley Dupre, the call girl whose face and body (and even singing voice) was all over the place during the media frenzy following the revelations—and in a revealing interlude, uses his interviews with her to tell her side of the story. Since hiding one’s identity is central to Spitzer’s story (he called himself George Fox when securing “dates” from the agency), it’s fitting that we don’t see the real Angelina, but instead an attractive actress, Wrenn Schmidt, who acts out her answers. “Angelina’s” composure and intelligence contrast with the giggly co-owner of the Emperors Club VIP, Cecil Suwal, the 20-something who embarrassedly laughs whenever she’s heard from.

Client 9 presents a solid if not airtight case that vengeance, along with hubris, took down Spitzer: after all is said and done, it’s not for nothing that the former governor himself brings up the name Icarus to illustrate his own downfall.

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