Directed by Alex Gibney
We all know the story—right? Crusading governor gets caught up in an ethics malfunction that screams irony of the highest order. With how narratives get quickly packaged, sold and duplicated in contemporary media, it was easy to take a few quick glances at the train wreck that was Eliot Spitzer’s downfall and move on. But then, of course, a few loose threads do announce themselves—if Spitzer was a major focus of a federal investigation, why was he never charged with anything? And if this was about political viability, why was there so little outrage when Governor Mark Sanford or Senator John Ensign’s extramarital liaisons were exposed, post-Spitzer?
Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) has put together a masterful piece of investigative reporting with Client 9. The theory he sets out to explore is that Spitzer’s vociferous anti-Wall Street agenda as New York’s Attorney General, as well as his aggressively reformist attitude whilst Governor, led to a downfall that could have been a political/corporate hit. Cast in the villain spotlight, although not without being given ample facetime themselves, are financier Ken Langone, former AIG chief Hank Greenberg, and political hitman Roger Stone. While Langone and Greenberg cast themselves as mere bystanders to Spitzer’s downfall, Stone seems to perhaps be embellishing his contributions for glory’s sake—he tells a story about a conversation with a prostitute who serviced Spitzer (which he later related to the FBI) that doesn’t check out with interview findings from the prostitute whom Spitzer saw most often (who was not Ashley Dupre, but has actually remained unknown: Gibney interviewed her but she refused to be shown on film, so an actress, Gibney explains, plays her in the doc). That Gibney managed to rope all these characters in is impressive, and provides for something like a comprehensive view of the scenario he’s theorizing about. The only missing piece is Michael Garcia, the US Attorney (appointed by the Bush Administration) who led the investigation that uncovered Spitzer’s misdeeds. The key piece in Gibney’s argument is that Garcia and the FBI’s investigation began in response to a single $6,000 wire transfer Spitzer made; such transfers, we are informed, occur by the hundreds every day, and do not typically set off federal concern. It seems a bit haphazard to mount a federal investigation on the basis of one such random transfer.
Extremely affecting are segments with Spitzer himself, whose interview is featured prominently. Most poignant is a moment toward the end of the film, where Gibney tosses Spitzer what appears to be a softball, though perhaps it’s merely a softball in disguise. “Do you ever feel like there were forces conspiring to help engineer your downfall?” Gibney asks, after having presented a film that makes a clear case for just that. “No,” Spitzer responds simply. “I did this to myself, I’m the one to blame. I brought myself down.” It’s a humbling moment of pathos in a film that is wrapped up, often, with who did what to whom, and who had something to gain in X situation. Partly a hypothesis about various political agendas, partly a look into the shattered psyche of a once-unshakeable man, Client 9 provides both an intellectual critique of our political system as well as a humanist portrayal of what that system can wreak.
Opens November 5