Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review – Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Film Review – Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010; Directed by Alex Gibney)

One question arises repeatedly in the mind of the viewer (and perhaps leaves their mouth as well, in a sheer overflow of frustration) in the course of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Alex Gibney’s strong feature documentary about the New York State Attorney General and Governor whose sky-high political ambitions were laid low by a prostitution scandal. That question, as even those whose familiarity with Spitzer and his downfall begins and ends with that previous sentence, is, of course, “How could you be so foolish?” Gibney doesn’t get much closer to an answer to that question than some mythologically-tinged pronouncements about the pride and hubris of power. Many of these are offered by Spitzer himself, whose contrition over the events that deep-sixed his mega-promising political career seems oddly ambivalent.

Before his dealings with an exclusive escort service (and one of its employees in particular, who has chased the fleeting, ignominious fame offered by her central role in the sordid scandal like a greyhound after an electric rabbit), Spitzer was on a rising path that seemed likely to lead, as one interviewed party states in Client 9, to his election as America’s first Jewish President. With an unwavering moral barometre and flair for clever legal creativity as State Attorney General, Spitzer pursued a wide array of white collar crime prosecutions, indicting enough shady-dealing Wall Street predators for their trespasses on the law to make himself their potential prey.

Some of these figures appears in Client 9, and they are invariably arrogant reptiles in expensive suits with the prevailing manner of either prevaricating untouchables or brash two-bit hucksters made far too good. Gibney also interviews Spitzer’s political opponents from Albany’s New York State Capitol (itself a baroque monument to unchecked graft), who fought his initiatives tooth-and-nail during his scant 14 months as Governor. None of these men are more sympathetic than the man who was taken down for being a john, and many of them have similarly gone down in flames on various corruption charges that would seem to anyone capable of transcending partisan viewpoints to be more serious (though no more or less illegal) than soliciting prostitution.

As a documentarian, Gibney has a nose for conspiracies and secret knowledge, the unseen underhanded doings that form the churning undercurrent beneath the flaking veneer of quasi-democratic neoliberal capitalism. He traces clues like a sleuth that more than hint that Eliot Spitzer’s fall was engineered or at least enthusiastically encouraged by his plentiful enemies and their sleazy operators (“ratfuckers”, to use an impolite Nixonian epithet for these political dirty trick artists). The overall picture is a depressing one of idealistic progressivism assailed by self-serving greed and power but ultimately fatally wounded by poor judgment and self-indulgence by the political paladin himself. It isn’t ever drawn so baldly by Gibney, but it wouldn’t be a wild interpretation of the events to wonder if Spitzer didn’t yearn for the hedonistic pleasures of power and wealth that the financial animals he legally pursued availed themselves of while he ascetically abstained.

All of that said, Client 9 is not nearly such a psychological beatdown for the progressive viewer inclined to see Spitzer’s fall as a triumph of the forces of evil, or any other viewer for that matter. It’s engrossing and entertaining, not least because it is inhabited by a cast of smarmily eccentric characters of an authentically American nature. It’s a contemporary political picaresque of the kind that a more overtly politically-inclined Werner Herzog might have produced, with the thoughtful but evasive Spitzer himself as a tragic Quixote/Fitzcarraldo/Aguirre at the centre of it.

The backdrop to this picaresque is the defining crisis of the West in our time: the enormous, unchallengeable wealth, power, and influence of international finance and the terrible consequences of that realm’s self-enrichment when it goes awry (and the built-in exploitative inequality and inherently tilted surface even when it doesn’t). It did go awry in the form of the global financial crisis that exploded while Spitzer was Governor of New York, a bubble burst anticipated by Spitzer’s crusade as State AG that may have been averted or at least lessened had Wall Street abided by the responsible investment and leveraging practices those prosecutions sought to enforce. Spitzer’s prophetic dimension is hard to miss; it gained him a high-profile MSNBC gig directly on the heels of his resignation amid the frothy sex scandal, and Gibney indulges that image with alacrity in Client 9. If the fall of Eliot Spitzer is a tragedy at least partly of his own making, it is ultimately a tragic fall with consequences wider and deeper than only a single failed political career.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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