Deconstructing his destruction
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 12, 2010
Eliot Spitzer, you're a paragon of integrity and public service who has pursued a brilliant political career prosecuting some of Wall Street's most notorious white-collar criminals. You're a shoo-in to be elected governor of New York in a few months, and observers are already calling you the future first Jewish president of the United States. What are you going to do now?
Hint: The correct answer is "I'm going to Disneyland." Not "I'm going to spend $100,000 hiring high-priced call girls through an elite Manhattan escort service under an assumed name!"
But that's exactly how former New York attorney general Spitzer inexplicably chose to spend his free time early in 2006, the year he was elected governor of New York. By now, his vertiginous free fall is well known. But in the absorbing documentary "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," filmmaker Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side," "Casino Jack and the United States of Money") makes a persuasive case that Spitzer's professional demise wasn't just the product of his own self-destruction, but was facilitated by the powerful corporate and political enemies he made during his years in public office.
Not that he didn't give them plenty of ammunition. "Client 9" smoothly recounts how Spitzer, the son of a wealthy businessman who valued contentious debate and ruthless competition, rose through the legal ranks to become one of the most lionized and loathed attorneys general in New York history, aggressively prosecuting environmental violators and fraudulent financial executives. His targets included New York Stock Exchange chief Dick Grasso, NYSE board member Ken Langone and AIG's Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, all of whom came to nurture deep animus against the "Sheriff of Wall Street." When Spitzer became governor, he took his combative style to Albany, where he invited the enmity of state senate majority leader Joe Bruno, who hired self-described "dirty trickster" Roger Stone just a year before Spitzer flamed out. (Meanwhile, Greenberg and Langone hired a PR firm to dish the dirt on Spitzer, and Langone hired a private investigator to find it, according to Gibney.)
If Gibney can't entirely prove that Greenberg, Langone, Bruno and their cohorts engineered Spitzer's destruction, he connects some fascinating dots between them and raises provocative questions relating to how and why the FBI came to investigate Spitzer. What was behind the Bush Justice Department's decision to devote such lavish resources on a small call-girl ring instead of focusing on their usual targets of terrorists, mobsters and white-collar criminals? Did Stone's lawyer really write a letter to the FBI laying out the details of Spitzer's assignations with prostitutes, even though the feds deny receiving such correspondence? And here's a thought experiment: Why is Spitzer relegated to the political wilderness of cable commentary when David Vitter, who was caught doing the exact same thing, not only didn't resign but just got reelected to the U.S. Senate?
Gibney got his biggest scoop when he tracked down a call girl named Angelina, who unlike Ashley Dupre (the prostitute who became famous as the "Luv Gov's girl") actually saw Spitzer more than one time and figured prominently in the FBI's investigation. Since Angelina declined to appear on camera, Gibney hired flame-haired actress Wrenn Schmidt to perform from a transcript of his interview with her. In addition to addressing questions about those knee-high black socks Spitzer supposedly wore during their encounters (not true, she says), Angelina also recalls the FBI's avid interest in the governor's sexual habits, interest she insists had no bearing on the case at hand.
That is, unless their object wasn't to prosecute Spitzer at all (he was never charged), but simply to interest a scandal-happy press, lead them with salacious clues to Room 871 of the Mayflower and let a super-size sex scandal take its course. "Client 9" doesn't make any excuses for Spitzer, who is interviewed extensively in the film and who wisely insists that he alone is responsible for his fate. But it leaves the unmistakable impression that there's more to this iteration of a story that, animated by hubris, lust, self-deception and love of power, is sure to play out again. One of the final scenes of "Client 9" is a rogue's gallery of a montage, featuring contrite images of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, John Ensign and Mark Sanford; it might as well include a frame labeled "TBD." Disneyland, fellas. The correct answer is Disneyland.
Contains sexual material, nudity and profanity.