How does the sad ballad of Eliot Spitzer go? The bad guys win. The good guy's got feet of clay. And the rest of us get screwed. Again and again and again. But ain't that always the case?
There's little doubt that the former crusading prosecutor and New York governor is a flawed man given to hubris, arrogance and bullying. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) makes that abundantly clear, dutifully chronicling both Spitzer's indiscretions and hypocrisy — flaws a regretful Spitzer mostly admits to on camera. What Gibney's slick and entertaining documentary also makes clear, however, is that the law-and-order liberal Democrat was also a fearless pit bull when it came to the power elite, willing to kneecap corrupt corporate practices at every opportunity, and exacting the kind of populist justice we haven't seen since Teddy Roosevelt.
Laying out a convincing but admittedly circumstantial case that the disreputable Wall Street titans and dirty Republican bigwigs he went after retaliated with the full force of their influence (reaching all the way up into the Bush administration's "Justice" Department), Client 9 parades a rogues' gallery of adversaries who harbor deep hatred for the man. Disgraced New York Senate leader Joe Bruno, the snake-like AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, sleazy Republican political operative Roger Stone, and a vengeful Kenneth Langone inexplicably show up to gloat over Spitzer's downfall, while revealing themselves to be sociopathic narcissists who crave the opportunity to get in the last word. When Greenberg laments that he's practically broke — with only $100 million to his name — you'll want to throttle the man who most likely helped rob your granny of her retirement funds.
As a lens into the microcosm of politics, it's as depressing as it is enlightening, demonstrating how truly we have become a country by the corporations, of the corporations and for the corporations. In particular, Wall Street corporations. How much so? It's worth noting that, at the time, Republican Sen. David Vitter was guilty of the exact same crime as Spitzer (soliciting a prostitute), but only Spitzer was investigated by Bush's FBI with the goal of prosecuting him under the Mann Act, a 1910 law that was created to stop white slave trading. Ultimately, Spitzer was never charged, but all the embarrassing details of the FBI's investigations were mysteriously leaked to New York newspapers and television stations, leading to his resignation. In retrospect, you can't help but wonder whether his tireless crusades against the corrupt practices of Wall Street might've illuminated the economic collapse that occurred later in 2008, practices he'd been railing against for nearly a decade.
With its raucously witty and hipper-than-hip soundtrack, brisk pace, and cinematographer Maryse Alberti's savvy eye for composition, Client 9 is a surprisingly engaging documentary, given its complex subject matter, looking to appeal to more than just the art-house crowd. Though Gibney uses tried and true doc conventions — archival footage, talking heads, pointed interviews — he injects a hell of a lot of style and energy. Occasionally he goes too far (shots of a great white shark while accounts of Wall Street greed are given), but from an entertainment standpoint, his only miscalculation is the film's too-long running time.
Client 9 also indulges in a little bit of hypocrisy of its own, as it subtly indicts the public and media for being all too easy to distract from complicated yet important issues of corruption by titillating tabloid scandals. So much time is spent investigating call girls, the world of high-priced prostitution, and whether Spitzer screwed with his socks on, you can't help but think Gibney became victim of the very same distractions. I'm still on the fence about his use of an actress to perform a transcribed interview with Spitzer's camera-shy mistress. Time would have been better spent on Spitzer's seemingly gracious and stalwart wife Silda, who is noticeably absent.
Ultimately, Client 9 makes clear what our country lost when Spitzer fell from grace. Because of our immature and naive belief that heroes and leaders must have cartoonishly impeccable morals, one of our best hopes for helping to curb the rampant corporate avarice that's consuming our nation's prosperity was defanged and disgraced. Though Spitzer admits that, in the end, he undid himself, it's a sad song we're all forced to sing along with.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21-22, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23.
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