When I saw Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I wrote that it made you see Spitzer as a “modern-day ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Albany’ – like a Jewish Jimmy Stewart with anger issues and a yen for strange women – in a version of the movie in which Claude Rains wins.”
Which I think pretty much summarizes it. Gibney tells the story we all know, but only as background to the story we don’t know.
Which is what makes Gibney one of the most valuable filmmakers out there. He may not have the flair for self-promotion that Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock do – but Gibney does have the requisite sense of outrage. More to the point, he possesses the clarity of vision and intelligence to take complicated stories – whether about Enron, a civilian death during the Iraq war or uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff – to make his material both comprehensive and interesting.
For his subjects, that’s an uncomfortably deadly combination. And so it is with “Client 9” – though the one who should be squirming isn’t Spitzer. It’s Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who drove AIG into the ground, and Kenneth Langone, former director of the New York Stock Exchange. And Joseph Bruno, former New York Senate majority leader who was convicted of corruption on charges originated by Spitzer.
Together they make an unholy trio of right-wing power brokers, all of whom were targets of Spitzer’s anticorruption zeal. They all suffered because of Spitzer – and, Gibney shows, they all had a hand in bringing him down. So did squirrely dirty trickster Roger Stone, another villain in this piece.
Gibney’s case is that, while Spitzer absolutely did the things he admitted, he was the target of right-wing-powered federal investigations into relatively minor tax infractions. That investigation – seemingly motivated by revenge and an effort to target Spitzer – is the kind of thing that could easily be applied to the malefactors involved in the financial collapse of 2008 but which, as Charles Ferguson’s lucid “Inside Job” discusses, never were.
Yet, somehow, the feds – under the Bush administration, of course – found time to pursue a prostitution case to snare Spitzer.
Gibney’s other point is that Spitzer made no friends while in office. Zero. None. He alienated people with his self-righteousness, failing to recognize even the most harmless of political niceties. A ruthless competitor, he was the guy who had to win every argument.
So when his transgressions were uncovered, as minor in the larger scheme of thing as they were (how many Republicans have committed the same sins, yet remain in office?), Spitzer had no political capital in Albany with which to leverage himself. He could find no support – among Republicans, certainly, but also among Democrats – to simply apologize and stay in office.
Gibney does talk to Spitzer, though the former governor (and current talk-show host) squirms and fudges about the hookers themselves and what hubris led to his fall. But that’s less interesting, ultimately, than the kind of victory lap that the oily Greenberg, the blowhard Bruno and the cheesy Langone take, as they gloat about Spitzer’s downfall.
Where there’s smoke, as they say – and in that respect, Alex Gibney’s “Client 9” is on fire.