“He was going to be our first Jewish president,” one of the talking heads in Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s new documentary wistfully recalls. He’s referring to the Eliot Spitzer who, as New York’s attorney general, took on the corporate titans of Wall Street, locked horns with insurance giants like AIG and did a practically super-hero-level job of making the rich, powerful and greedy pay for their crimes against the common man.
The Eliot Spitzer most Americans remember, unfortunately, is the crusader elected governor who fell from grace in spectacular fashion when federal investigators learned of his patronage of a high-end escort service and leaked details to the press. He was forced to resign in March 2008.
Gibney sets out to answer two questions central to the tragedy: First, what was Spitzer thinking? And second, how did the Bush administration happen to launch an inquiry into the private life of an elected official?
The answer to the first question is one that, two years later, Spitzer still can’t provide. “I don’t know,” he tells the camera. “It’s one of the mysteries of the human mind.”
On the subject of question two, the filmmaker has a good deal more to say. As he’s done in such nonfiction milestones as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (which he also released this year, in addition to a segment of Freakonomics), Gibney reveals the results of his own exhaustive investigation. And he uncovers a completely new side of a story we thought we knew.
Gibney’s mission isn’t to excuse Spitzer’s behavior, but to put it in context and shed light on the dark side of big-time power politics. He begins by chronicling the politician’s ascent as a maverick AG who decided that, if the feds weren’t going to hold the financial industry and mammoth conglomerates accountable for corporate malfeasance and excessive executive compensation, he would.
The list of his legal victories is impressive, and they resulted in huge fines and millions in restitution. The list of enemies Spitzer made along the way is equally notable. It included some of the wealthiest and most influential heads of commerce in the country, among them former AIG chairman Hank Greenberg and former director of the New York Stock Exchange Ken Langone (both were named in suits brought by Spitzer).
Amazingly, Gibney persuaded these men to discuss their feelings about Spitzer on camera. Worth the price of admission is the look in Langone’s eyes when he all but admits to siccing the FBI on his enemy after mysteriously learning that “[Spitzer] went himself to a post office and bought $2800 worth of mail orders to send to the hooker.” He brings to mind Lord Voldemort in a Brooks Brothers suit.
Client 9 is a highly compelling, masterfully crafted piece of work that leaves the viewer with nearly as many questions as answers. Why, for example, did Spitzer resign when countless other politicos have ridden out sex scandals? Bill Clinton is one of the most popular people alive, another talking head points out, “and he got a blow job in the Oval Office.”
Another question: Might the economic meltdown of 2008 have been averted if Spitzer had still been policing Wall Street? He was eerily prescient about the abuses that would prove its cause. What does it say about America that money can buy the complicity of an administration in the deliberate destruction of a public servant?
Eliot Spitzer is the first to admit that he alone is to blame for his transgressions. But Gibney wants us to reflect on whether his sins merited the snuffing out of a promising, reform-centered career, and how they stack up against those of the people who probably brought about his downfall. Spitzer had sex with a few women, after all. These guys are part of a system that screwed an entire nation.
* Running time: 117 min.
* Rated: R