Spitzer Drama is Exposed in ‘Client 9’
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer -- Dir. Alex Gibney (Magnolia Pictures) -- 3.5 STARS
"Romantic-mystery-thriller" is the vibe that director Alex Gibney confesses to aim for in "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." But even if this genre-bending sounds like a tall order for a documentary, Gibney could not have chosen a better subject. After all, the scandal surrounding former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s relationships with high-class prostitutes is wonderfully engaging.
Yet "Client 9" wants to be more than cinematic—it seemingly aspires to Greek tragedy. When he first appears in the film, Spitzer compares his own story to that of Icarus, claiming that both he and the mythrical figures were "taken down by hubris." He adds, arguably with a touch of remaining hubris, that stories like his "go back to Greek mythology." To be fair, "Client 9" is a sympathetic though not always flattering portrayal of Spitzer, but it does take the loftiness of his claims at face value. The documentary is wholly persuasive in its depiction of the enemies that brought down Spitzer as corrupt. However, the film ultimately fails to prove why this particular political sex scandal, out of the many that regularly stream out of the news cycle, deserves to be elevated.
The Wall Street suits that everyone has loved to hate since the economic downturn are cast as the bad guys in "Client 9." Gibney, the Academy Award-winning director of the documentaries "Taxi to the Dark Side" on the United States’ torture policy and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," again cuts into the national politcal climate. According to "Client 9," Spitzer’s aggressive crackdowns as New York attorney general on unethical Wall Street practices—the same practices that would eventually lead to the financial collapse—earned him many powerful enemies on Wall Street.
Gibney gets an impressive roster of people to talk on camera, especially given that several of them make no secret of being Spitzer’s enemy. They include former New York Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone and former CEO of AIG Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, both of whom came under investigation during Spitzer’s tenure as attorney general. The most colorful figure is surely Roger Stone, whom the documentary suggests was hired to go after Spitzer. A self-styled "GOP hitman," Stone proudly sports a Richard Nixon tattoo on his back. While no one admits to anything on camera, the editing juxtaposes conflicting statements to reveal that somebody must be lying.
Subtle details in "Client 9" function to align sympathies with Spitzer—for example, the way that interviewees are filmed can have a profound impact of the viewer’s reaction. Langone, the former Wall Street man, is filmed in a board room looming down at the camera. Skyscrapers, menacing in the background, are reflected in the cold mirror of the board room table. Spitzer, on the other hand, is filmed on a beige couch in what seems to be a living room—the domestic confines of a fallen crusader.
He is depicted as an idealistic reformer against the Wall Street morass and later, as New York governor, against the corruption in the state government. But a single man is no match for the establishment, and his zealousness may have backfired, the film suggests. "Client 9" reviews usual law enforcement practices against prostitution rings, which rarely target johns, to conclude that someone with money and connections was out searching for dirt on Spitzer.
While the corruption of Wall Street and of New York’s state government comprises the documentary’s primary focus, the story would of course be incomplete if it didn’t delve into the prostitution scandal. Ashley Dupre, the woman with Spitzer when he was caught, did not agree to appear in the film. The documentary dismisses her as someone who exaggerated her one-time relationship with Spitzer to cash in on fifteen minutes of fame. Instead, another escort, supposedly Spitzer’s favorite, is featured. However, because she does not wish to reveal her identity, the viewer must simply take the director’s word at face value. In fact, "Client 9" employs a few techniques more befitting fiction films, which may prompt a discerning audience member to question where exactly the line between truth and fiction lies. For example—without spoiling specific surprises—there are several instances where the film presents something in one way, only to reveal later that it is entirely something else.
"Client 9" is satisfyingly entertaining and informative, but it never makes good on the promise of Greek tragedy. The film is framed in such a way that it begins and ends with artists making high-minded proclamations about the nature of man as "half beast, half angel" and the downfall of Spitzer as an "ancient narrative." But it is hard to buy into the supposed epic scope of this particular story when a sequence in the film goes through a litany of similar political sex scandals—Mark Sanford, John Edwards, and Larry Craig to name just a few. Like its subject, "Client 9" is undone by its own ambitions.