REVIEW: Alex Gibney's Client 9 Charts Eliot Spitzer's Ups and Downs, with Mixed Results

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Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is another in a growing line of documentary audits of the run-up to New York's annus horribilis, and the second offered by director Alex Gibney this year alone (Casino Jack and the United States of Money, about the Jack Abramoff scandal, was released this spring). If you can turn your mind back to 2008, you'll recall that it was the year New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a good old-fashioned sex scandal, right before the economy finally collapsed and the country was delivered into a sequel to the Great Depression. No wonder retro's all the rage!

Looking back certainly is, even if the events in question have barely reached the rear-view. Perhaps the 24-hour news cycle has accelerated output across all media; perhaps that same cycle drowns out thoughtful analysis, making in-depth treatments of little-understood topics more urgent. I think the proliferation of Alex Gibney films alone makes a strong argument for the idea that investigative documentaries are picking up the slack left by the decline of long-form magazine journalism. Indeed, Gibney papers Client 9 with pop-ups of magazine and newspaper features from the early- and mid-aughts; exposés about Wall Street and speculative profiles of Spitzer in Fortune, New York Magazine, BusinessWeek and Vanity Fair loom large, literally -- their provocative headlines fill the frame. A handful of years ago, and yet it feels like a truly different time.

Mr. Spitzer, it can be safely assumed, would agree. Gibney convinced the disgraced governor to sit for a candid and yet measured interview. He speaks to camera -- his commanding, cut-quartz eyes locked with ours -- and like other interviewees is shot from several different angles; Gibney uses the coverage to add a little visual interest to the various talking heads. After some background on Spitzer's family (his father Bernard, an influential real estate tycoon, showed no shame in foreclosing on his son during Monopoly games), we learn a bit about his tennis game (serve and volley) and his rise to power as the indefatigable attorney general for New York (and the so-called "Sheriff of Wall Street").

It's when Gibney begins building in some of the outlying pieces of the puzzle that the documentary suffers a bit of an identity crisis. His clear sympathies with Spitzer skew a potentially powerful, unsparing exposé (his specialty) in the direction of a rehabilitative portrait. Which is not to say that Spitzer doesn't deserve one, but the tension between the two conflicting approaches tends to diffuse -- rather than galvanize -- the force of some of the story's salient facts.

A rather lengthy précis of Spitzer's steamrolling accomplishments includes the fact that Bush Department of Justice attorney Michael Garcia ordered Spitzer to drop a case he was assembling against AIG CEO Hank Greenberg. There follows a pointed description of the prostitution bonanza that unregulated trading and excessive salaries (Spitzer's famed bêtes noir) brought about. It's not a totally unreasonable connection (especially considering Garcia's subsequent involvement in Spitzer's prostitution bust), and yet in making it Gibney seems to spread the blame -- ever so slightly -- for Spitzer's choices onto the damnable availability of the decadence he was fighting against. The bizarrely giddy madame of the Empire Club ("that oldest sector of the global economy," yuk yuk) describes her clientele and the women she hires to service them; the latter wanted the best of everything, and seemed to need to pay top dollar for it as well.

Gibney's irresistible get is the prostitute Spitzer met most often, a woman who agreed to be interviewed only if her face and voice were not used. An actress (Wrenn Schmidt) performs as Angelina, who is full of a lot of not-quite-necessary information about her job, and her most famous client's bedside manner. Tacky music cues ("Love For Sale"? Really?) and cutaways contribute to a shabby tone that feels as unnatural to Gibney as the film's rehabilitative impulses. There's a bumpy section in the middle where the viewer must forfend whiplash as he cuts between the madame describing call girl Ashlee Dupre's genitalia and Spitzer frothing about white collar crime and CEO compensation. "You simply can't pay someone $200 million," he says. "It's not right."

Fortunately, Gibney's crack procedural instincts kick in as he reconstructs the gallery of enemies Spitzer made in the financial sector and in politics. A lot of them -- including Greenberg, former NYSE director Ken Langone, New York Republican Senate leader Joe Bruno, and GOP henchman Roger Stone -- were willing to talk, and a convincing case is made that Republican plotting of a Nixonian caliber hoisted Spitzer upon his own petard. As Gibney and Spitzer are at pains to point out, it's a story as old as Icarus: Man rises to power; man makes enemies; man gets greedy and is undone. Archetypal stories generally have a measure of satisfaction built into their circularity, the justice of their moral progression. This one might too, in time; it's still too early -- and too freshly disappointing, on several fronts -- for that yet.