"This goes back to the days of Greek mythology. This is not a new story."
But it's always been a good story. Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer has the makings of great documentary in many of the same ways that Spitzer's story made great copy when it broke back in March of 2008: it's got sex, it's got crime, it's got corruption. What's more, it's got a seemingly virtuous, all but untouchable figure of public service who takes a spectacular nosedive in the full eye of the public, thanks to a lapse in judgment that seems, in retrospect, stunning in its stupidity.
All that was hashed out at the time, in hours of breathless news coverage and commentary; some of it has resurfaced, as Spitzer has re-entered the public eye, co-hosting an evening show on CNN (he is now part of the media machine that ate him alive a mere two years ago). But with every detail of the scandal put under the microscope, what more could a documentarian--even one as skilled as Gibney--extract from a story so thoroughly, breathlessly reported?
Then again, Gibney's unique gift--whether covering the Enron implosion, the torture debate, or the Abramoff scandal--is to push further, go deeper, ask the next question, examine the motivations, find the story underneath the story. That's what he does, to thrilling effect, in Client 9, a movie that looks the Spitzer story right in the eye, and then keeps looking. Why did Spitzer fall? Why did he fall when he did? And--most importantly--who benefited from it?
Gibney's thesis, formulated through profiling Spitzer's rise and closely examining the powerful enemies he made on his way up, is that there were powerful people who wanted to see him disgraced, and who may have played in a role in that fall. Take Ken Langone, the venture capitalist and former head of the New York Stock Exchange; perhaps Spitzer's most outspoken foe, he makes for a complex and entertaining villain. Then there's Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, who Spitzer (as attorney general) charged with fraud. Or former Goldman Sachs chairman John C. Whitehead, who challenged Spitzer on the pages of The Wall Street Journal--and engaged in a public dust-up afterward. Most intriguingly, there is Roger Stone, the self-proclaimed "GOP hitman" with the Nixon tattoo on his back.
But--and this is key--Gibney's film is complex and mature enough to recognize that sniffing out and questioning the forces at work against Spitzer doesn't excuse what he did, or explain why he did it. "I did what I did," Spitzer says in the film, "and shame on me." The portrait of the political (and economic) climate surrounding Spitzer's downfall is rich, but the most fascinating element of Client 9 is, unsurprisingly, its psychological portrait of its primary subject. To his credit, Spitzer sat with Gibney for several interviews, and those scenes are razor-sharp, frequently funny, and unreasonably fascinating--both in the acutely self-aware commentary of what he says, and the specific way in which he says them. When talking politics, he still speaks like a public servant: loud, clear, brash, with self-righteousness and confidence. But as soon as the conversation turns to his "double life," it is, indeed, like he's another person. His voice lowers, his speech rate quickens; he doesn't want to dodge this stuff, because he knows he has an obligation to talk about it, but boy does he want to get it the hell over with. But the candor on display is remarkable, particularly when, towards the end, he looks straight into the camera and talks about his wife. Say what you will about his actions then or his motives now, but you can't fake the emotion he has at that moment.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is, for the most part, clean and sharp, though there are a few soft shots and some dark scenes where grain is a bit too much. Archival materials are, expected, not always top-notch. But the interviews are crisply shot, and much of the B-roll--New York vistas, Wall Street skyscrapers, the Albany capital building--is just gorgeous, all lush colors and slick surfaces.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track fits the bill--it is (as tends to be the norm with documentaries) mostly a front-and-center job, with some spread of music cues and score. It's not a dazzler, but it's more than adequate to tell the tale.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Director Alex Gibney's Audio Commentary is well worth a listen--he's a smart, funny guy, and he sheds considerable light on his process (how he uses music, photos, and documents; his sense of pace; how to put across big ideas on-screen). Gibney also does an on-camera Interview (14:54), which serves less as a commentary on the film than a summary of it.
Extended Interviews (33:25) with Spitzer, Hulbert Waldroup, Joe Bruno, Roger Stone, Darren Dopp, Cecil Suwal, and "Angelina" are also included, and have some pretty intriguing exclusions (Spitzer's outtakes are particularly interesting). The five Deleted Scenes (16:42) are also well worth a look, particularly the closer examination of Spitzer's investigation of AIG.
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:03) is also included; "HDNet: A Look at Client 9" (4:21) is basically an extended version of that trailer, with some of Gibney's interview segment thrown in. Additional Magnolia Trailers, via the disc proper and BD-Live, close out the bonus section.
Alex Gibney put out three feature films in 2010 and contributed a segment to a fourth, the omnibus Freakonomics. Over the course of those films, his strong, sturdy style has solidified: his films are complicated but not confusing, fast-paced but not showy, entertaining but not shallow. Client 9 plays to his strengths; it compellingly explains the nuts and bolts of a shady operation (here, online prostitution), it uncovers shocking tape (of the illegal $500 million dollar GenRe/AIG deal), and it assembles a cast of entertaining "characters." Aside from Spitzer, Langone, and Stone, there's Cecil Suwall, the giggly, pragmatic 24-year-old madam of the Emperor's Club; crusty (and corrupt) Joe Bruno, Spitzer's greatest nemesis in the state legislature; and the matter-of-fact "Angelina," his most frequent escort--contrary to the post-bust notoriety of the "gov's girl" Ashley Dupre, whom he'd only met the one time. "Angelina," however, would not allow Gibney to photograph her or use her voice, so the director transcribed her interview and hired an actress to "play" her. Some critics and documentary purists have cried foul over this bit of trickery, but hey, at least it's appropriate to the film. If we learned anything from the Spitzer scandal, it's that you can't judge anyone by mere appearances.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.