“Client 9” digs into dirty business

Alex Gibney’s new documentary “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” wrestles with some troubling issues – and prostitution isn’t even in the top five. The film works through dirty politics, financial double-dealing, corruption, the hubris of the powerful, and the use of scandal as a modern political tool.

The Oscar-winning director examines the story of ambitious New Yorker who took on Wall Street as state attorney general, then as New York governor trained his guns on a political quagmire at the State Capitol in Albany, only to crash spectacularly when his regular use of high-priced prostitutes came to light.

Gibney, who brought us “Enron: the smartest guys in the room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side” (which won him the Oscar,) and “Gonzo: the life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” admits to being pro-Spitzer. That doesn’t mean he is easy on him.

Spitzer did five interviews with Gibney, but his trademark eloquence disappeared every time Gibney tried to dig into the reasons why Spitzer, who some people saw as a likely presidential candidate, and pre-Obama, arguably the Democrat with the highest profile, risked everything through his actions.

What Gibney has more success uncovering is what he sees as the campaign by Wall Street leaders who Spitzer attacked as attorney general to discredit him, and bring about his downfall.

Nobody comes out looking good. What is remarkable is the willingness of all sides to talk about what happened, and their own part in the drama. We meet investment banker Ken Langone, former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, and New York state Senator Joe Bruno who all who openly delight in Spitzer’s downfall. And there is self-styled political hit-man Roger Stone, the man with Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, whose alleged chance meeting with a call-girl in a Miami swingers club led to the public revelations of Spitzer’s indiscretions.

These are real characters who some fiction writers might set aside as too outrageous.

Gibney’s movie is fast-paced, but very dense. A second viewing is as revealing as the first, as brief references early in the film become more telling given subsequent revelations.

He also dances along the challenging re-enactment line. One of his most intriguing characters talked at length to Gibney, but refused to have her face or even voice used in the film. The director finds away around this hurdle, but it’s going to leave some viewers feeling uncomfortable, particularly as this is already a story about duplicity.

Eliot Spitzer says in “Client 9” that his is an old story, with themes little changed from ancient Greek tragedy, of hubris and how the mighty can fall. Gibney shows this is true, but how in the 21st century the process can be much faster. It’s also clear, with Spitzer now embarked on a new TV career, that the story is far from over.

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