WEBTAKES: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Reviewed by Robert Sklar 

Produced by Alex Gibney, Jedd Wider, Todd Wider, and Maiken Baird; written and directed by Alex Gibney; cinematography by Maryse Alberti; edited by Plummy Tucker and Alison Amron; original music by Peter Nashel. Color, 117 min. A Magnolia Pictures release.

He wore black calf-length socks and kept them on during their encounter, the call girl revealed. Not true, retorted a different woman, who claimed to be his favorite, his black socks were ankle length and off they came. Think of all his other habits and qualities they might have publicly compared, or argued over, but it’s this prosaic dispute—not hideous kinky, more like hilarious kinky—that may keep fresh in memory a New York governor’s career-shattering transgressions. Who wears black socks in bed? Eliot Spitzer!

Of course the black socks controversy may simply have been a political dirty trick, concocted by Republican operatives who not only brought down a Democratic governor but also indelibly crafted a doubly unflattering image: an uptight and prudish sinner, a fastidious whoremonger. Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, certainly implies as much. The film is a documentary account of Spitzer’s meteoric success and (apparent) pathetic ruination: New York’s crusading attorney general, scourge of Wall Street; elected governor in a landslide, pledging to reform the venal, corrupt culture of New York State politics; touted as a serious possibility to become the first Jewish president; then caught, as the saying goes, with his pants down, socks on or not. (As of this writing, Spitzer has just been launched on a new gig as co-host of a political talk show on CNN, so he remains in the public eye.)

Client 9 bears comparison with another muckraking documentary of the moment, Inside Job, but it’s difficult to rouse the same indignation at Eliot Spitzer’s fate that one feels toward the greedy malefactors, in Charles Ferguson’s film, who got rich while destroying the world’s economy. “Was this a political hit?” Gibney’s voiceover asks of the circumstances in which federal investigators, unusually for their handling of johns, targeted Spitzer’s dalliance that was discovered during their tracking of a call girl operation. He’s being coy: Of course it was. The problem about being furious at the feds is that Spitzer is responsible for putting himself in jeopardy. Did he think he wouldn’t be found out? That he wasn’t being watched and wiretapped? For the very smart guy that he is, he surely played it dumb. We may some day hear the views of psychologists on the subject (an expertise not represented in the film). Meanwhile, at the film’s end Spitzer says the gallant and necessary words: “My view is I brought myself down.”

But a lot of people thirsted for, worked toward, and cheered on his downfall. Spitzer antagonized plenty of people during his term as attorney general and added many more enemies as governor. It wasn’t only that Wall Street and Albany fought back against his attacks and the possibility of indictment, trial, fines, and jail time. It was also how they perceived his manner of taking them on: He made threats, he swore, his anger seemed out of control, so that, as one unfriendly antagonist puts it in the film, “froth [was] coming out of the side of his mouth.” This combative style worked well for Spitzer as attorney general, but, even if his righteous tone was justified when it came to Albany’s morass, it was becoming clear, a year after his election, that it was rendering him ineffective.

Unlike Ferguson, who couldn’t get his major villains to appear on camera and had to settle for second stringers, Gibney found the targets of Spitzer’s judicial and political wrath eager to talk. There’s Kenneth Langone, a former director at the New York Stock Exchange, whom Spitzer took on for approving an outrageously high salary for the Exchange’s head; “Hank” Greenberg, former CEO of AIG, the excesses of which were apparent to Spitzer long before its later crisis and bailout; Joseph Bruno, former Republican leader of the New York State Senate, charged with corruption; and Roger Stone, Republican dirty trickster, probable author of the black socks story and perhaps the man who dropped the dime on Spitzer’s sexual shenanigans. Stone is an incorrigible exception, but the others can afford to be measured in their condemnations of Spitzer, and casual in their prevarications. They’re the unlikely “stars” of Gibney’s documentary, simply because they’re enjoying themselves—cats who swallowed the canary.

Spitzer himself gets ample screen time, sometimes in tight close-ups that shave off his chin and brow, as if by really getting near his face we’re gaining access to the depths of his mind and motivation. We don’t. However much Spitzer may have come to know himself better through his ordeal, he reveals little or nothing of what he may have learned. There are gnomic pronouncements—“It wasn’t an addiction, it was a desire”—and an overall tendency to see himself as a figure of myth (Icarus) or Greek tragedy.

The film also pays considerable attention—as with Inside Job—to the contemporary call girl trade. Its practitioners report that they can make $2,000 an hour, they come from good families, their clients are movie stars, bankers, captains of industry, etc. Conversely, we learn almost nothing about Spitzer’s family and the effects of his behavior on them. For many people, the enduring memory—and most lasting topic of discussion—arising from the Spitzer affair is not his black socks but the image of his wife standing beside him, gaunt and sad, as he publicly admits to his, obviously for her, devastating misconduct.

Robert Sklar is author of Movie-Made America and many other books on film.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1