Reviews

A Likeness to Icarus: 'Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer'

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.


Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Eliot Spitzer, Wrenn Schmidt
Distributor: Magnolia
Rated: R
Year: 2010
US DVD release date: 2011-01-25

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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