Review Of Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer”

Client 9 Alex Gibney Eliot Spitzer

Alex Gibney’s Client 9. Image via Wikipedia.

Although the Eliot Spitzer scandal elicited 3 responses — support, hostility, and puritanism — Alex Gibney’s excellent 2010 documentary, Client 9, hammers home how idiotic all 3 really were, revealing, as it does, how such extremes arise in the first place, as well as the costs of norms that stray too far from the mean. Yes, Spitzer is in the middle of it all, but in a sense, the film’s periphery shows men and women exhibiting precisely the things hated in him and that Spitzer hated in turn: selfishness, hypocrisy, single-mindedness, and the way that culture, on all sides, tends to refract such. And while Spitzer is painted as an extremist, in ways necessary, in ways not, he is also revelatory of the things around him, something that the ‘middle’ — in its  dilution of itself — often cannot do.

Client 9 begins on such a note, with a Spitzer ad extolling ‘right’ bore alongside mock advertisements for the scandal, as if New York is celebrating both the man’s importance and his downfall. Spitzer is immediately apologetic, calling his story a “classic tale of hubris,” which is nicely paralleled with the paintings of New York artist and former pimp Hulbert Waldroup, who muses on human beings’ dual nature. None of this is particularly deep, but still sets up a controlling metaphor for the film’s remainder, ensuring that Gibney has much opportunity to play with images and ideas as the film goes on. Spitzer then gives a brief ‘in’ to his childhood, noting how his father “cruelly” beat him in Monopoly to teach his son a lesson. This leads to Spitzer’s distinction between violent and white collar crime: that while violent crime is glamorized, and visible, white collar crime is neglected but just as important (in fact, I’d argue it is worse overall, for feeds and enlivens the former). And, indeed, for the film’s many examples of white collar crime sum to trillions in damage, millions of cumulative years shaven off of workers’ lifespans due to the related stressors, and other abuses that — rarely punished — point to a discrepancy that favors one class of thug over another. This offers an informational edge for those that want illumination. More importantly for the film’s narrative, however, its focus on real, named criminals props up a number of characters, many of them interesting and mysterious in their own right, that will serve as antagonists to Spitzer and offer some hints to the ‘how’ of his eventual downfall.

As the film progresses, these names come fast, reminding one of the jigsaw-like quality of Gibney’s earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. There is Henry Blodget from Merrill Lynch, whose fraud — while merely a scapegoat for a much bigger problem — shows how ingrained the thug mentality really is, with Blodget privately poo-pooing the criminal investigation since fraud was so prevalent, and, therefore, a kind of entitlement. Then there’s Richard Grasso, former chairman of the NYSE, who received a $190 million ‘golden parachute’ from the very companies he was meant to regulate, Spitzer’s lawsuit against him demanding the partial return of this money after Grasso was asked to step down as CEO, the 2006 court decision against Grasso, the 2008 decision in favor of Grasso, on a technicality, and the ire of Kenneth Langone (co-founder of Home Depot) towards Spitzer for Spitzer’s ‘abuses’ against his friend. But while Langone spends much of the film waxing poetic about his inability to forgive Spitzer, almost to the point that you wish to accept the man’s verdict, on purely emotive grounds, it is clear that the governor was within his right. The NYSE was a non-profit bounded by rules of disclosure that Grasso did not respect, as evidenced by the surprise of many NYSE directors at his compensation. That the original decision was reversed due to the NYSE’s privatization years later is irrelevant, for the rules were still broken at a time when they were still expected to be followed. Langone, who saw Grasso as a real asset, disagrees with these conclusions, but declares such by mere fiat, for there is territory here, with twisty rules and adumbrations that others simply do not challenge, even after years of worldwide recession. Spitzer did, and so the effect was WAR, neatly paralleling Spitzer’s own words — often needlessly combative — towards others later in the film. In short, one must, after a while, question these men (for they are men, all, their needs are masculine, their negotiations are masculine, the fallout, masculine): are they reacting to a perceived flaw within Spitzer, or chucking their own shortcomings against what, from the opposite end, can only be their logical mirror? It is an interesting question that is never fully answered, partly because the answer is already there in full.

Other figures include AIG’s Maurice Greenberg, who Langone ridiculously claims could have averted the AIG meltdown if he had not left in 2005, despite Greenberg’s decades-long pioneering of credit default swaps, Attorney General Michael J. Garcia, who is presented as having conflicts of interest as a regulator, the likeable Joe Bruno — Spitzer’s nemesis — and mysterious political strategist Roger Stone. The last two, in particular, play an ever-widening role in Spitzer’s downfall, with Joe Bruno coming across as reasonable and conciliatory, even if misleadingly so, in the face of Spitzer’s aggression, which (if the quotes are to be believed) often took on comic proportions in Albany. Roger Stone, for his part, is hired by Bruno as a kind of ‘consultant,’ but does some odd  things — such as leaving a psychopathic message on Spitzer’s answering machine — that ultimately get him fired, thus providing the political threat to Bruno’s more existential one all the while hinting at deeper motives that neither Bruno nor Spitzer understand. In short, it is clear that despite Spitzer’s sense of right, and the net-positive effect of his policies, Spitzer was ill-equipped to deal with Bruno, who is a veteran politician in both the good and bad senses of the word. No, one does not get the feeling that — unlike, say, with Roger Stone, who is hired by unnamed rich men after Bruno’s firing — he had anything to do with revealing the details of the sex scandal, at least on the film’s evidence. Yet Bruno likely gave the Governor something even deeper to muse upon: that ‘right’ is simply not enough, that Albany is a labyrinthine town, that there are hazy rules and taboos and decorum as silly and as complex as the financial products Spitzer wished to regulate. The difference, of course, is that while Spitzer was fluent in the language of one, he was less so in the other. That Gibney is able to pay respect appropriately, and neither overstate nor detract from Spitzer’s accomplishments, shows that even when Gibney’s positions are clear, they never result in agitprop.

Yet as interesting as they all appear, who these people are does not really matter: an artistic disaster, in most cases, except when such amorphousness has a real purpose. Sure, these men (for, again, they are all men, save for the film’s sexualized beings) have families, personalities, and even say compelling things, at times, but they are still part of a game they cannot quite opt out of, much less understand. Bruno, for instance, speaks of legislative negotiation with Spitzer — “this came off, this went off, this came on” — and what he terms political “needs,” thus admitting there are people to satisfy, who in turn must satisfy others, without end, generating a kind of theatrics that condemns politics to a forever transient thing. Indeed, even Roger Stone, who is easily the most interesting of the film’s personages, is a fixture of pure action: that is, of motion for motion’s sake rather than anything to think upon, oddly denying others’ accusations despite being guilty of them, resting on old glories and — in his 60s, now — viciously creating new ones. Yes, Ken Langone speaks of the ‘value’ of CEOs, and the like, while Greenberg mopes about after being pressured out of AIG in 2005, but one gets the sense that these are fungible men: men who were luckier than most, or even a little harder-working than some, but men nonetheless whose job could have been done by other men, dull men, sociopathic men just waiting to take their place, and if not, men who are in fact irreplaceable at that time, but replaceable in time, and, in particular, to time, leveling the world, once, in their own way, only to be leveled for all time when the world tires of such details. It is, alas, an important difference that often gets elided in the search for ‘heroes’ and ‘prodigies’ that exist far less often than those words’ commonness might suggest.

Of all the film’s drivers, however, two stand out as the most annoying, on the one hand, and levelheaded on the other. The first is Ashley Dupre, the prostitute (“escort,” she insists) who unwittingly helped authorities identify Spitzer as Client 9, and whose subsequent fame netted her a couple of shit songs, a terrible column for the New York Post, and a series of tearful, poor-me interviews wherein she played up an allegedly bad home life and talked of her ‘mistakes’. It is all bullshit, of course, as one of her colleagues points out, since they were all paid well, savvy, and generally enjoyed their lives far more than most women their age. They were not victims, but women in full control of their own trajectories. It is instructive, then, to watch society ‘punish’ them, on the outside, as a kind of sexual tax, then offer money and attention as a reward when Purgatory runs its course. As Gibney points out, few high-profile prostitutes are ever jailed, and few johns are ever prosecuted, but pimps and madams — the ringleaders of such — suffer the most severe penalties. In a sense, the thinking, implicitly, is that one group has urges (universally understood for time immemorial without much fuss) and another could fulfill them. The exchange costs both parties due to a basic, congenital asymmetry. It is impossible to disrupt what is, at bottom, a natural exchange, but a madam (in this case, the bubbly and deceivingly astute Cecil Suwal) flaunts such contracts publicly, at a time when, for whatever reason — it matters not — this is apart from the agreement. Thus, as Client 9 goes on to show, while the sex itself is rarely punished, one, and only one, member of the exchange can continue to sell her sex to newspapers and the like all the while begging for forgiveness of the same ‘transgressions’. The only difference is that the first sale is crass and privately negotiated, and the other is done with the eyes and imagination and official sanction.

It is all a ruse, no doubt, and while Ashley Dupre comes off as a shameless self-promoter, fellow escort ‘Angelina’ is trenchant but private. In fact, one of the more alluring of the film’s internal fictions is the use of Angelina herself: the prostitute Spitzer visited and got to know most, and who (unlike everyone else in the film) is played by an actress reading the real Angelina’s prepared lines. The setup shows the camera upon the actress, fixing her hair, looking at her script, and thus, paradoxically, keeping viewers at arm’s length by Gibney’s twist of ‘untruth’ all the while drawing them into a deeper reality. She is critical of Dupre’s hypocrisy, recognizing their relative comfort in life, and seems to enjoy (unlike Dupre) getting to know Spitzer and hearing of political questions that would not have even crossed Dupre’s mind. Most interesting of all, however, is her recognition of the politicized nature of the Spitzer investigation: that, despite the two being complicit in a crime, it was clear that investigators did not really care about the crime at all, but seemingly irrelevant details. They asked, according to Angelina, about Spitzer’s sexual proclivities, toys, and attire, as if to embarrass the man rather than make the charges stick. And while Gibney’s assertion that Republicans get far less penalized for such offenses is a false dichotomy — Spitzer, after all, was meant to regulate the very businesses he patronized — it is clear that at least a couple of the film’s men were responsible for Spitzer’s downfall, with dozens more involved out of some vested interest.

The film ends on an ambiguous and poetic note, with Spitzer, not quite knowing his next step, out on the street. Ashley Dupre has just finished a horrific televised rendition of “Let It Snow,” to much applause, as Spitzer greets a passerby and quietly thanks him. As he disappears into the crowd anonymous, a woman walks past then looks back, as if she’s registered something, however briefly, then continues on, for on some level it doesn’t matter, he is just a name, what he has done is only as real as the last thing he has done, and the theatrics — and the value of their converse — are re-affirmed. And while I am afraid there is not much more to say on the topic, this is not really the film’s fault. It is merely the limit of the terms, within, for while the stagecraft gets exposed again and again, from the Gracchi brothers, to Jeb and George W., it matters not, for the terms are still craved, the terms are still human, resolute.

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