Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer -- Film Review

In retelling the still-astonishing story of the meteoric political career of Eliot Spitzer, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has all the ingredients for a potboiler.

In retelling the still-astonishing story of the political career of Eliot Spitzer, a shooting star whose spectacular crash might forever obscure his accomplishments, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has all the ingredients for a potboiler: greed, corruption, sex, power, overweening ambition and jaw-dropping hubris

But with "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" there also is this: Emerging from the shadows of previous media reporting to appear -- and in some cases sneer -- in front of Gibney's unblinking cameras are a host of characters that would make Dickens weep with joy.

You knew about opportunistic high-class hooker Ashley Dupre and perhaps those familiar with New York state politics its unimaginably corrupt Senate majority leader. But who knew about the giggly, almost naive madam who oversaw the Emperors Club; the sick-with-power Wall Street barons who the film suggests quietly engineered the governor's downfall; or an implausible dirty trickster, a self-styled James Bond operative who makes the Watergate burglars looks like sagacious spies?

The film is reminiscent of Marina Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, in which a documentarian takes a fresh look at what seems like an overly familiar news story only to surprise you with details and backstories that eluded reporters of the time.

If nothing else, the film, which clearly is sympathetic toward its protagonist, might quicken the ongoing rehabilitation of a political figure who, in retrospect, had astonishingly prescient notions about reforming America's largest financial institutions.

After its Toronto debut, it opens Nov. 5 in Los Angeles and New York before a national rollout. The film should enjoy long runs in specialty venues.

Gibney takes his time setting the scene and attempts no revolutionary techniques. This is a straightforward doc, mixing together new interviews with Spitzer, other talking heads, news footage, a few self-indulgent metaphorical shots -- a swimming shark to illustrate the predatory players who invade the mutual-funds business -- and a staged interview with an actress playing Spitzer's main prostitute playmate to protect the real woman's identity.

The film plays around with quick takes on Spitzer's psychological makeup and stories about playing Monopoly with his real-estate mogul dad. But the film really hits its stride when it zeroes in on Spitzer's years as New York's attorney general.

Dubbed "The Sheriff of Wall Street" by the media, Spitzer took on powerful interests and rampant corporate abuses. A fiery temperament fueled his drive to reform Wall Street, but his impetuous manner made powerful enemies who vowed revenge.

The film singles out two, who cheerfully appear before Gibney's cameras to gloat: Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, former chairman and CEO of the now-infamous AIG, and venture capitalist Ken Langone, the New York Stock Exchange board director who signed off on an outrageous pay package for its chairman and CEO, Richard Grasso.

Spitzer's biggest mistake might have been to personalize his battles with such individuals. The film strongly implies these men worked behind the scenes to bring Spitzer down.

How compelling are the film's arguments? Well, you wouldn't want to go to court with such circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, amid a war on terror, the FBI took an unprecedented interest in a lousy call-girl ring then watched (or orchestrated, some say) a steady leak of information regarding one particular client, the No. 9 in the title, which leaves little doubt that everything was not as it seemed.

Nothing Greenberg or Langone say persuades you they weren't involved. Each looks like he's dying to take the credit.

As does Roger Stone, who is the G. Gordon Liddy of this bizarre case. A Republican dirty trickster disdained even by many in his own party, Stone poses for beefcake photos, displays a tattoo on his back of his hero Nixon and hints at participation of swinging sex. He also was hired by New York republicans to go after Spitzer. The man is anything but credible in interviews, but he doesn't mind teasing suggestions he played some role in Spitzer's downfall.

Of course, the biggest role in this downfall is played by Spitzer. Most people in life would love to have as many friends as Spitzer has enemies. So if you're famous and wearing a target on your back, you might not want to patronize call girls in public hotels. What was he thinking?
Spitzer, who is precise in many recollections, offers only foggy generalizations to explain his hubris.

The fact remains that American politicians of all stripes never get laid low by lying to the public or taking questionable contributions. Only sex scandals do them in. Why is this? In passing, a former Spitzer aide muses that a French politician would treat such a scandal as a campaign asset. But this perhaps is a subject for another intriguing Gibney documentary.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Magnolia Pictures)
Production: Magnolia Pictures and A&E IndieFilms in association with Wider Film Projects and Jigsaw Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Maiken Baird, Jedd Wider, Todd Wider
Executive producers: Mollly Thompson, Robert DeBitette, Robert Sharenow, Mason Speed Sexton
Co-producers: Peter Elkind, Sam Black
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Music: Peter Nashel
Editor: Plummy Tucker
Rated R, 117 minutes
Sales: Roco Films International