Most of the individuals that appear in Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer exist in circles of great wealth, power, and passion. Some constitute what might be called the “straight world” of business and government. Others sell sex for money. Everyone is accustomed to competing for a better position than the one they presently enjoy. Hank Greenberg, former chairman and CEO of AIG, is quoted in the film as having said, “All I ask for is an unfair advantage.” The saying might be attributed to Greenberg, but it also seems to be the common perspective—the foundation—of the amoral world revealed in this sad and at times inert documentary.
Former New York Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer is “Client-9”, a moniker that appeared in the federal affidavit concerning the Emperor’s Club VIP escort service. The prostitution scandal, which took place in early 2008, stopped Spitzer’s arguably unprecedented momentum as an exceedingly popular new Governor and future presidential hopeful. We’re told in the documentary that his political rock stardom was second only to that of Barack Obama. We’re told he could have been the first Jewish president.
Spitzer’s race to be best and first involved much-publicized aggression against Wall Street giants and political rivals. Client 9 praises this personal crusade against questionable practices in the world of finance and the pursuit of justice in cases of environmental abuse. Yet the film contends that the passion that allowed Spitzer to succeed on behalf of “the people” was also accompanied by an above-the-law energy that manifested in his dalliances with prostitutes.
President Bill Clinton—a man familiar with such double-edged passion—infamously argued in his own grand jury testimony concerning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky that “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In Client 9, Gibney and his subjects exercise a similar sliding scale of morality and comparative complicity. For his part, Spitzer seems to vacillate between accepting full responsibility for his actions and using the breadth of history and mythology to contextualize (excuse) them. He references Icarus and then escalates that comparison, saying, “Those the gods would destroy, they make all-powerful.”
Cecil Suwal, former CEO of the Emperor’s Club VIP, is hesitant to use the word “prostitution” in describing her business. She sees the high-rolling, jet-setting milieu of the Emperor’s Club as something more elite than prostitution, as if the prestige of the clients and the high price of the escorts overrode the illegality of the enterprise. Clinton’s rhetorical escape hatch parsed verb tense, but Suwal’s turns on class distinction.
Despite Gibney’s efforts to unveil a scheme amongst the political rivals and personal enemies of Spitzer, these men appear in the film as mostly affable and above the fray. They also react with no small sense of satisfaction to Spitzer having been exposed as a flawed man. Former New York Stock Exchange director Ken Langone, whom Spitzer sued in the case involving Dick Grasso’s NYSE compensation package, calmly admits to not being able to forgive the former Attorney General for his behavior during and in the wake of that legal action. Greenberg, like Langone, cannily dodges speculation of his own wrongdoing and involvement in actively bringing down Spitzer as an act of vengeance.
Although Gibney tries to connect dots between these individuals and federal prosecutor Michael Garcia, who ended up investigating Spitzer, he fails to convincingly present evidence of a conspiracy. Any significant new conclusions he might have made from rehashing these old but enduring conflicts become lost in a crowded field of talking heads, tangents, and on-the-nose visual illustrations, which include swimming sharks and hands moving around property on a Monopoly board game.
As for the sexy business at the heart of the scandal, the film’s biggest revelation is that the media exaggerated the role of Ashley Dupré, who became the “star” call girl connected to Spitzer. The archival footage of her appearances with Diane Sawyer and Geraldo Rivera reinforce the media’s eager participation in the money/sex/power transaction. Although another girl, “Angelina” is allegedly much more relevant to the case, Gibney delivers her testimony through an actress (Wrenn Schmidt). It’s a nice bit of role-playing, and Schmidt’s performance is occasionally engaging, but more often her placement in the film is inauthentic and unpersuasive.
Therefore, much like the federal affidavit in the Emperor’s Club case, Client 9 teases our imagination with a trail of clues, yet there’s ultimately little payoff or satisfaction. The film’s most effective statement about the environment of competition, corruption and comparative immorality arrives in a montage of figures—Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Ensign, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and David Vitter—all of whom have chosen to be leaders of men, and all of whom have engaged in behavior similar to Spitzer. Client 9 would have us believe the response to Spitzer’s indiscretion was uniquely forceful or orchestrated, but the truth is, all these men move onward in the film’s metaphorical shark tank. Each inherits what Langone calls a “private hell”, but no man’s hell is fiery enough to quash the desire and pursuit of public attention.
The conclusion of Client 9 positions Spitzer as someone who could have prevented the financial disaster that was building to a head as his private affairs were becoming headlines. This sense of regret on Spitzer’s behalf, and the focus on the bright future that could have been, carries over to the special features included on the DVD. In a bonus interview with Gibney, the writer/director goes so far as to describe Spitzer as a man who was somehow too pure for the governorship in Albany. Although the film does mostly avoid making too many excuses for its subject, this interview reveals the filmmaker’s rose-colored view of Spitzer’s political crusade. Deleted scenes and extended interviews provide additional details about the high-stakes conflicts and conquests that make up this all too common story of a spectacular rise and mighty fall.