Doc of the Day: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 22, 2012

One sex scandal took him from the top of the political world to disgrace. This is how it happened.

Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010, 117 min

Eliot Spitzer’s story epitomizes the priorities of America’s political attitude. He spent years fighting against Wall Street corruption, but at this point all he may be remembered for is having sex with a prostitute. We hounded him for it, he stepped down from his governorship, and then rolled back all the reforms he tried to introduce to the financial sector. And look how that turned out. Client 9 examines how the system took down a man who tried to change it.

Of course, Spitzer was no saint, but as this documentary demonstrates, his undoing lay more in a bloating sense of self-importance than in his inability to keep his zipper up. When he moved from Attorney General to Governor, he made enemies of Republicans and Democrats alike with his refusal to act with other politicians, pushing his own aims above cooperation. As a result, he had no friends when the shit hit the fan.

But really, even if he did, the media still would have hounded him out of his position. That’s just how it works when you’re a progressive who makes a slip up. As this film points out, most of the Republican officials revealed as johns of the DC madam kept their jobs. Right now, as Newt Gingrich makes his catastrophic run for President candidate, nary a peep is heard of how he cheated on his wife while baying for Clinton’s blood over the oral in the Oval. Can you imagine the circus if Clinton decided to run for something?

I’ve sung Alex Gibney’s praises on this site before over his mastery of documentary narrative, but he took something of a misstep with this film. While it’s usually engaging, there are several stretches of dead air. It’s odd that his doc about a single sex scandal is longer than his doc about the downfall of a massive corporation. We don’t really need to hear about how Spitzer grew up, or the musings of an artist who became involved in pimping, or any of the other myriad digressions this film takes. This film easily could have stood to lose twenty minutes, at least.

Sometimes, though, that digressive nature is an asset. It’s always useful to see what one incident says about the conditions that formed it. Some segments, such as concerning the working conditions of high-class escorts, aren’t technically necessary, but provide helpful context about the sort of men who get into bed with that business (*ahem*).

Frustratingly, though, the movie never goes after that question of why Spitzer did what he did. Gibney got Spitzer to appear in the film, and he asks Spitzer why he took such a ridiculous risk, but Spitzer dodges the query, and no more is spoken of it. But that’s the crux of this whole tale, and without that center, the doc threatens to cave in on itself. How can a man who has built up such a flawless reputation, who has so much to lose, and who has powerful enemies hungering for any weakness, make that kind of choice?

The film builds Spitzer up as something akin to a Greek mythological figure (and does so quite unsubtly, with Spitzer himself making the comparison, even). It’s thesis is that this is a clear-cut case of flying too close to the sun, and reaping the consequences. I don’t buy that. Based on this film, I don’t believe that pride was the deadly sin that brought Spitzer down. I think that Gibney missed the real story here: one of a man so inundated with pressure, brought on both by his virtue and his arrogance, that it drove him to an unhealthy, unwise place for relief.

Client 9 is never exactly boring, but the missteps, combined with what I feel is a completely misaimed conceit, betray a movie with tons of potential. Even with all those issues, this will still engross and enrage you. Gibney made a great choice in bringing in so many odious Wall Street squids and Republican villains to have their say, and they hang themselves with their own maddening hypocrisy. But the good material really just makes me wish this doc was better overall.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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