Was Eliot Spitzer, the so-called "Sheriff of Wall Street" whose attention-grabbing crusade against big-business corruption catapulted him to New York's governorship, sabotaged by his own hubris or the victim of a calculated political hit?
That’s the question Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) poses in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, his fascinating behind-the-headlines account of a scandal that brought down a crusader some pegged as likely to become “the first Jewish president.” Gibney makes a compelling case for both answers, chronicling in fascinating detail Spitzer's too-rapid ascent to the top ranks of the Democratic party and the too-carefully orchestrated campaign of humiliation that accelerated his fall.
Happy to revel in his disgrace are the titans of Wall Street, including former New York Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone and former American International Group chairman Hank Greenberg, whom Spitzer targeted during his days as New York’s attorney general. Did antagonizing men whose recklessness precipitated the country’s economic collapse doom the future governor to a bumpy ride in office?
Clearly it did. A Draconian politician, rarely a diplomat, Spitzer turned his anti-corporate crusades into personal vendettas, alienating not just Republicans and their wealthiest backers but also members of his own party. As one former aide explains, the new sheriff would have to walk the straightest of lines to keep himself above reproach, and at the peak of his power, he did not.
Why not? Spitzer, who gamely submits to Gibney’s interrogation and acquits himself admirably, seeming at once contrite, funny and fiercely intelligent, cannot say. Forthcoming when it suits him, he tiptoes around reports of temper tantrums and his fateful dalliance with Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the Emperors VIP Club escort who earned overnight notoriety as the governor’s purportedly favorite girl. (She wasn’t.)
It is then, stammering to explain how a man with so much to lose could exhibit such reckless judgment, that Spitzer seems most evasive, but also most human. There is no rational excuse save for, as Gibney puts it, the mysterious “death wish” Spitzer seems to acknowledge. If Gibney comes up short in identifying the governor’s trysts as proof of something more than executive horniness -- a taste of the forbidden fruit no high-profile Boy Scout could afford -- what would you expect?
Yet Gibney’s aim is not simply to coax a tell-all confession from the VIP Club’s most infamous client, but also to document the unprecedented smear campaign that led to his resignation from office. Here too the filmmaker’s case is rife with insinuation and conjecture, but the evidence he presents, including the testimony of a politically motivated private investigator who prodded the FBI to look into escort services and their johns – territory traditionally ignored even at the lowest levels of law enforcement – is persuasive.
If that makes Client 9 sound sympathetic to Spitzer, it is, though Gibney’s painstakingly researched story could hardly be taken for a love letter to the former governor turned CNN host. In a movie that asks more questions than it answers, encouraging us to fill in the blanks, the most troubling is whether Spitzer’s failings outweigh the good he achieved in his personal quest to regulate Wall Street.
Watching former antagonists like Greenberg, the ousted AIG chairman, and ex-New York State Senator Joe Bruno, convicted 10 months after Spitzer’s resignation on two counts of corruption, gloat over the governor’s demise, it’s easy to marvel at their hypocrisy. Harder to accept is the nagging suspicion that the good guys not only lost, but that their most outspoken defender signed his own political death warrant.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is now playing at the Opera Plaza Cinema, and is available via Video on Demand. For tickets and showtimes, click here.