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Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

An American Tragedy?
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Everyone thinks they know what happened to Eliot Spitzer: Elected governor of New York State, he was forced to resign after a little more than one year when it was revealed he had been patronizing an “escort service,” paying for the sexual services of women employed there. Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) has a somewhat different take on Spitzer’s downfall, and he carefully and rather persuasively lays it out in his new documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.

Gibney doesn’t deny his subject’s errors or character deficiencies; in fact he portrays them in a sometimes compelling narrative. But his storytelling leads to another crucial possibility in the affair: Very potent enemies conspired in forcing Spitzer from office in a revenge conspiracy against the former crusading New York Attorney General. In this version, Spitzer’s sins against these people and their interests were both public and personal. He was impinging on the operations of such financial-sector corporate giants as Merrill Lynch and the New York Stock Exchange, and he was also challenging industrial titans in a threatening, one-on-one fashion.

Spitzer, who actively cooperated with the filmmakers—he appears in intermittent interview excerpts throughout—doesn’t quite concede his own abrasiveness, aggression, and high-intensity temperament, but Gibney, who remains sympathetic, establishes the former governor’s hard-charging personality rather easily. As a 10-year-old boy, Spitzer had to play cutthroat games of Monopoly with his real estate magnate father. (It sounds amusing now, but on at least one occasion, it left the youngster in tears.)

A former county prosecutor in New York City, Spitzer burst into public consciousness as a louder, larger-than-usual state attorney general who was soon termed “the Sheriff of Wall Street” by media types. After going after such corporate malfeasants as General Electric, for its illegal dumping in the Hudson River, he moved on to the financial sector. In the face of the Republican-led Security and Exchange Commission’s tolerant passivity in response to Wall Street’s malign manipulation of the securities markets, Spitzer boldly occupied a law-enforcement position in the vacuum, an innovative move into legal territory formerly dominated by the feds, whether they chose to act or didn’t. In retrospect, of course, his allegations, charges, adversarial negotiations, and court cases against individual and institutional financial giants look prescient and satisfying, but also in retrospect, they were dangerous. When Spitzer locked horns with industry potentates, and sometimes seemed to make it a matter of individual satisfaction and honor, he was creating very powerful enemies.

One of these, Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and a director of the stock exchange, makes no bones about his enduring hatred of Spitzer, even while sanctimoniously proclaiming his fundamentally forgiving nature. He comes across as a loosely tethered executive pit bull. One of Gibney’s impressive achievements is to have put on record capitalist power icons like Langone and Maurice Greenberg, the former chief executive of AIG, the notorious international insurance conglomerate bailed out by the US government two years ago. These people don’t register as factually candid most of the time, but the overweening arrogance of their assumptions and attitudes comes through. Those seeking salacious stories and details from Spitzer’s “rise and fall” probably won’t be disappointed with Client 9, but the really fascinating material is Gibney’s largely circumstantial case that powerful men and interests waited for an opportunity to get Spitzer and that he obliged them by helping create his own trap. Skulking around the affair’s edges, and speaking out of both sides of his mouth, is the veteran, sleazy political operator Roger Stone, who more recently was an advisor to Buffalo’s own political junkyard dog, Carl Paladino. Stone seems to both claim and disavow responsibility for Spitzer’s predicament.

Gibney’s film leans a little too much on hypertrophied imagery and cutting, but it’s mostly compelling and disturbing. Spitzer himself declines to lay the blame for his political fate on a high-level cabal, but ascribes it to his own hubristic heedlessness, a flaw, he says, that “goes back to Greek mythology.” This smacks of a little pretension, and self-service. It may also contain a measure of truth. However personally overbearing Spitzer’s behavior might have been, his public life was vastly more useful to and wholesome for the American public than the careers and characters of those Gibney suspects who conspired against Spitzer. One possible irony is that his own elite origins may have encouraged Spitzer’s obliviousness to the dangers he was facing in his power-wielding opponents.

Watch the trailer for Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

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