The fall from grace (and office) of Eliot Spitzer—the crusading New York Attorney General who took on Wall Street before the feds would, easily won a term as the Empire State governor, and then was forced to resign when he was caught in a prostitution scandal—is scrupulously detailed in Alex Gibney’s documentary, which uses archival footage, stills, a long interview with a chastened Spitzer and others with journalists, colleagues and opponents—as well as those involved in the “escort business” which was his downfall—to present the affair, if you’ll excuse the term, in clear, compelling (though not simply chronological) fashion.
But Gibney, as usual, is after bigger game. “Client 9,” while hardly forgiving of Spitzer’s recklessness and stupidity (and not overlooking his volcanic personal style, which often poisoned the political waters), doesn’t aim merely to present the governor’s story in the style of a Greek tragedy (though it makes that allusion). It suggests that a political conspiracy among Spitzer’s enemies was involved in bringing him down. Gibney fingers several figures who, he suggests, were part of the group. Some are obvious political rivals like Joe Bruno, the Republican leader of the state senate, who makes no bones about his detestation of Spitzer.
But others are foes that had emerged as a result of Spitzer’s Wall Street investigations. One is Ken Langone, one-time head of the NY Stock Exchange, who was angered by Spitzer’s attack on the huge bonus paid to Richard Grasso, the Director of the NYSE, took it personally, and was perhaps instrumental in collecting evidence of the governor’s peccadilloes through investigators and partisan operatives like Roger Stone, a dirty-tricks type. Another is Hank Greenberg, the former head of AIG, who was forced to resign as CEO of the now-notorious insurance giant when Spitzer ‘s queries suggested that he was implicated in certain unscrupulous financial practices. Gibney implies that these guys, and others, may have provided information to the FBI that led the feds to act against the escort service that Spitzer patronized and to target him particularly, as well as the services’ operators.
One can’t say for certain whether Gibney’s right on this—the evidence that he offers is circumstantial, though it certainly is suspicious that the normal practice of not going after customers was not followed in this case, and that the investigation headed by a Republican U.S. Attorney appears to have leaked information to the press designed to out Spitzer. He’s also correct in pointing out the very different fates that befell Spitzer and David Vitter, the Louisiana senator who had to admit patronizing prostitutes but not only did not resign but was recently re-elected. Of course he’s a Republican, which seems to make all the difference.
But whether or not Gibney’s argument is right, his interviews with Langone, Greenberg and Stone (as well as Bruno) are enough to persuade you that even if they weren’t part of an organized conspiracy, they’re all loathsome people. When Greenberg, whose firm’s shenanigans were instrumental in nearly destroying the US economy, whines about the hit his AIG stock has taken since his departure, remarking that it’s “nearly worthless” before explaining that it probably wouldn’t be value at much more than a hundred million now, you want to reach into the screen and strangle him.
“Client 9,” as all of Gibney’s films, is expertly crafted, with excellent camerawork by Maryse Alberti and editing by Plummy Tucker (although the choice of accompanying music can be rather obvious). There are, however, a couple of points one can criticize. One is its overly gentle treatment of Ashley Dupre, the high-end hooker who falsely claimed to be Spitzer’s favorite escort and parlayed the lie not only into fifteen minutes of fame but to a job as a NY Post columnist. (What a joke.) The other is his decision to have the testimony of Spitzer’s real favorite, a woman called Angelina, read by actress Wrenn Schmidt in character after the actual woman refused to appear herself. Gibney’s up-front about the tactic, but some can still object to it as an excess of “recreation.”
Still, on the whole “Client 9” is a fascinating investigation of a sad and sorry personal and political scandal, and while it doesn’t prove its allegations of conspiracy, it makes a persuasive circumstantial case.