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

Suspenseful, provocative look at how and why Eliot Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York.

It's easy to condemn disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer, harder to try to understand his behavior. What's even more difficult is to show him as the victim of a shadowy Wall Street conspiracy. Writer and director Alex Gibney does that and more in an engrossing and disturbing documentary. A must for political junkies, Client 9 is an involving and expertly made film that deserves a wide audience.

Gibney opens the film with the prostitution scandal that led to Spitzer's resignation as Governor of New York in March 2008. This material that will be familiar to many viewers, but Spitzer's spectacular fall and its accompanying media frenzy are still fascinating to watch. Gibney then backtracks to detail Spitzer's career, using interviews with the Governor, his staff and many of his enemies to flesh out details.

Spitzer made his reputation as a tough, incorruptible district attorney before winning an election for New York State Attorney General. A "Sheriff of Wall Street," he took on overpaid CEOs, acid rain and the pharmaceutical industry because, as he put it, "No one else would." Both friends and foes use "war" to describe his tactics, and there's no question that Spitzer bruised a lot of egos. Elected Governor, he vowed to change politics in Albany, in the process building a new set of opponents. When Spitzer was forced to admit that he hired prostitutes from the Emperors Club, few were willing to defend him.

In previous movies like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney forged a documentary style that uses news footage and interviews as building blocks in a precise narrative structure. He's drawn to complex stories dense with details, and at times risks overwhelming viewers with facts.

Gibney debunks several of the "facts" surrounding the scandal, in the process reducing the publicity-seeking call girl known as "Ashley Dupré" to a bystander. More important, he constructs a strong case that Spitzer was the target of a conspiracy to destroy his career. Likely suspects include business magnate Ken Langone, deposed AIG head Hank Greenberg, and former New York State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, recently convicted of fraud.

Since the basic outline of Client 9 is so well-known, Gibney can concentrate more closely on how to present the narrative. He has first-rate reporting skills, but here he reveals himself as a master storyteller, eliminating gossip to focus on key elements, linking interviews through phrases or graphics, pausing to introduce crucial characters, constructing a version of events that is utterly persuasive. He is also patient enough to let a figure like Bruno hang himself with his own words.

Client 9 never excuses Spitzer's behavior; if anything, Gibney takes pains to single out the former Governor's contradictions. Although their one-on-one interviews are fascinating, Gibney never manages to break the politician's shell. Ironically, Spitzer's reticence adds to Client 9's credibility: The director is more concerned with setting facts straight than in settling scores.

The film will provide as much ammunition for Spitzer's detractors as for his supporters, as well as give viewers a glimpse into an alternate universe of high finance. Gibney alludes to Greek mythology in the opening sections, a strategy some might find pretentious. By the end of Client 9, after Spitzer emerges as a flawed hero beset by malignant forces, it makes perfect sense.