The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Blu-ray)
Getting at the truth of a tabloid scandal isn’t easy, because everyone thinks they already know the story. By the time former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer wore out his currency as a punchline, who wanted to revisit the subject? But, as Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney sets out to show, there’s more to the story of Spitzer’s disgrace than people know. For one thing, it was inaccurately reported. More importantly, the context in which Spitzer’s political career collapsed, after it was revealed that he’d patronized a pricey escort service, raises uncomfortable questions about where we are today.
There’s no question about Spitzer’s misconduct. At no point during Gibney’s interviews does the former governor try to make excuses or shirk responsibility. But Spitzer’s crash occurred at a unique historical junction of business, politics, media and fame. Just a few months after Spitzer resigned in shame, the country was plunged into crisis by many of the same financial players whose excesses Spitzer had almost single-handedly tried to curb during his tenure as New York’s attorney general. His tactics made him hated on Wall Street and a populist hero. How did someone like that implode so spectacularly? Gibney isn’t able to explain why, but Client-9 makes you understand why it’s important to ask.
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 118 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 5, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 25, 2011
Gibney weaves his presentation from interviews, news footage and contemporary coverage shot in New York City (intended, as Gibney explains in the commentary, to convey a sense of the locale where much of the story unfolded). The interviewees include Spitzer himself; his co-workers; some of his powerful enemies in both the business and political worlds; journalists who covered the story; and top people at the notorious (and now-defunct) Emperors Club VIP escort service, where Spitzer spent tens of thousands of dollars.
The son of a successful real estate developer, Spitzer enjoyed a privileged childhood and a first-class education, with an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. Unlike most people from such backgrounds, Spitzer chose the far less lucrative path of public service. After a successful stint in the Manhattan D.A.’s office under legendary prosecutor Robert Morgenthau and a brief holding pattern in private practice, Spitzer was elected New York’s attorney general in 1998. It was there that he really began to make a name for himself.
Financial deregulation and free market ideology were at their peak, but Spitzer thought markets needed a cop on the beat. Believing that federal authorities had largely abdicated their responsibility, Spitzer began investigating and bringing cases in America’s financial center, since it fell squarely within his jurisdiction. He went after Wall Street analysts who talked up internet startups that they privately told their in-house colleagues were junk. He went after mutual funds for giving hedge fund clients special pricing advantages over the general public (with a helping hand from Bank of America). He attacked the insurance industry for manipulating commissions. And he sued top executives of AIG for fraudulent business practices, long before that company’s name became a household expletive.
Spitzer’s current resurgence as a media figure rests largely on the fact that his aggressive tactics as attorney general now seem prophetic. But at the time he was a voice crying in the wilderness, and the financial industry hated him. Hardly a week went by without an attack in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. One such piece was written by Robert C. Whitehead, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, whom Gibney interviews. Whitehead’s editorial led to a heated telephone exchange with Spitzer, the exact contents of which remain disputed. Spitzer was never afraid of making enemies, and the ones he was making were powerful and well-placed.
One of the most colorful characters interviewed in Client-9 is Ken Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, whose comments are more eloquent than any dialogue a screenwriter ever penned. Spitzer ran afoul of Langone when he challenged the lavish compensation package awarded to Dick Grasso, former head of the New York Stock Exchange, of which Langone was a director. The resulting melee went all the way to the state’s top court, which upheld Grasso’s pay package on a technicality. But Spitzer had made an implacable enemy – the kind who doesn’t forget and looks for opportunities to get even. (Langone drops hints that he played a part in Spitzer’s downfall, but no one has ever confirmed the connection.)
Spitzer was elected New York’s governor in November 2006 with an impressive 69% of the vote. He’d run on a campaign to clean up Albany, one of the country’s most grid-locked state capitals, and he brought the same confrontational style to the governor’s mansion that had worked for him as attorney general. But a governor can’t get away with the same bare-knuckle tactics as a prosecutor. Spitzer, a Democrat, immediately found himself stymied by Joe Bruno, the silver-haired Republican Senate leader and a veteran of horse-trading and backroom deals. Bruno was thoroughly underwhelmed by the brash young prosecutor. Gibney interviews him at length, and condescension oozes from every pore.
(Bruno would later be convicted on two counts of corruption for steering state business to entities that paid him millions in “consulting fees”. Unlike Spitzer’s fall, Bruno’s surprised no one.)
As his battle with Spitzer intensified, Bruno hired a political consultant and dirty trickster named Roger Stone, who is yet another of those characters that no one would believe if a writer invented him. Fired from Bob Dole’s presidential campaign because he and his then-wife advertised for sex partners in a swingers’ magazine, Stone sports a detailed portrait of Richard Nixon tattooed on his back. (A photo is included in the disc’s extras.) Shortly after Bruno hired Stone, an obscenity-laden threat was left on the answering machine of Spitzer’s father in a voice that the FBI later identified as Stone’s. Interviewed by Gibney, Stone denies leaving the message and claims that it was Spitzer who fabricated it from recordings of Stone’s voice. Such was the gonzo world into which Spitzer’s battles had taken him.
For a career like Spitzer’s, the stakes were always high, but these escalating battles could not have come at a worse time. Beginning in 2006, when he was already running a gubernatorial campaign stressing decency and morality, Spitzer began patronizing escorts from the Emperors Club VIP. Gibney includes extensive interviews with Cecil Suwal, the 20-something who co-founded Emperors with her 60-year-old boyfriend, Mark Brener. He also interviews Hulbert Waldroup, an artist who worked as a booker for the club. Their descriptions of the club’s logistics and of its demise, after the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office focused on it, are detailed and riveting.
In March 2008, Suwal and Brener were indicted for prostitution. The indictment was a curious document. It mentioned ten customers, who were identified only as “Client-1” through “Client-10”. Clients 1-8 and 10 merited only cursory references. The activities of Client-9, however, were described in six pages of titillating detail. It took reporters almost no time to identify Client-9 as Governor Spitzer. On March 12, 2008, Spitzer announced his resignation.
The story doesn’t end there. After Spitzer’s resignation, a woman named Ashley Dupré became the public face of the scandal, appearing repeatedly on tabloid front pages where she was called “the governor’s call girl”. Dupré appeared on 20/20, where she pointedly refused to answer Diane Sawyer’s question about how many times she’d seen Spitzer, citing advice of counsel. She parlayed her new-found fame into a Playboy spread, a nascent recording career, a possible reality TV show and a position as a sex columnist with the New York Post.
There was just one problem: Dupré wasn’t the governor’s call girl. She’d seen Spitzer only once. No reporter ever bothered to track down the Emperors Club VIP escort known as “Angelina”, who’d actually been Spitzer’s frequent companion, and no one other than the FBI had ever spoken to “Angelina” about Spitzer, until Gibney did so.
Unlike Dupré, “Angelina” craved anonymity. She consented to participate in Client-9 on condition that all traces of her identity be removed. Gibney transcribed her interviews and hired an actress (Wrenn Schmidt) to portray her in the film. Through “Angelina”, we get a completely different perspective on the life of a high-priced escort than the predictable “good girl gone bad” that Dupré played for a willing media audience. We also finally get a glimpse of the furtive double life that Spitzer was leading during what should have been a high point of a remarkable career.
We certainly don’t get any view of that life from Spitzer. In spite of lengthy interviews, where Spitzer engages Gibney’s camera with unblinking directness and unembarrassed candor, one walks away from Client-9 with no better understanding of what motivated him than when the film started. It’s not as if Gibney doesn’t try. You can hear him off-camera, asking questions, probing from multiple directions, looking for any opening into the former governor’s thinking. Pop psychology aside, it’s entirely possible that Spitzer remains opaque to himself. Or maybe he’s not ready to share with anyone what he’s learned after a period of introspection. The closest he comes to an explanation is to invoke Icarus flying too close to the sun, but that hardly seems to jive with the image painted by “Angelina” of a shy man darting into the Waldorf-Astoria with a baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead.
As many of Gibney’s interview subjects point out, there are unanswered questions about how the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, whose primary interest in those years was investigating terrorism, came to focus on a single wire transfer by Eliot Spitzer that led them to the Emperors Club VIP. There are questions about who was feeding information to whom and about why this particular prostitution case was handled the way it was (in contrast, say, to the so-called “D.C. Madam” case in 2007, which snared a U.S. Senator who was able to retain his seat). But there is no question that Spitzer engaged in conduct that was illegal, inconsistent with his public persona and reckless in light of his public profile. Should such an individual be forever disqualified from public service, even though he is clearly talented, able and willing? That is only one of the many uncomfortable questions left hanging at the end of Client-9.
The contemporary footage appears to have been shot on HD video. It’s clean, detailed and colorful. Archival news footage is of lesser quality, even though the vintage is recent. Either HD archives weren’t kept, or Gibney didn’t have access to them. Although one sometimes wonders whether Blu-ray adds much to the experience of viewing a documentary, Gibney has said that he tried to shoot Client-9 to give a sense of life among the rich and powerful, and this is apparent in the staging of many of the interviews. Thus, for example, the flamboyant “political consultant” Roger Stone is interviewed at night on an outdoor terrace, with the City of New York in deep focus behind him. Ken Langone is interviewed in a massive office, where he is framed to emphasize his high station. Joe Bruno is interviewed on his ranch. Seeing the details of these settings adds to the impact of the interviews. (The elegantly understated cinematography is by Maryse Alberti.)
As is the case with most documentaries, the critical function of the audio track is to deliver voices clearly. The DTS lossless track succeeds, but it also provides Gibney’s well-chosen music cues with a pleasant tonality and an enveloping surround presence. The original score is by Peter Nashel, who is best known for his TV work on such shows as Lie to Me and the American remake of Life on Mars. The score is interwoven with tracks by Feist, Kurtis Blow, Common, Spoon, Tom Waits, Nikka Costa, Sam and Dave, Betty Lavette, Gorillaz, Caetano Veloso and an opening track of Cat Power performing the Kander & Ebb classic “New York, New York”.
Commentary with Writer/Director Alex Gibney. Gibney speaks at length about technical issues, comments on various interview subjects and speak about the contributions of Peter Elkind, a co-producer who was writing a book on Spitzer while Gibney was making the film. It’s an informative, engaging track.
Interview with Writer/Director Alex Gibney (HD) (14:54). Although Gibney narrates Client-9, he doesn’t really have his own say until this interview, in which he reflects on various issues raised by the film. He’s particularly pointed when he talks about how politics has become a “bloodsport”.
Extended Interviews (SD; 1.78, centered in 4:3) (33:25). Additional interview footage, much of it informative and interesting, but obviously cut for reasons of pacing. Interview subjects include Spitzer; Hulbert Waldroup; Joe Bruno; Roger Stone; Darren Dopp, a former aide to Spitzer; Cecil Suwal; and “Angelina”.
Deleted Scenes (SD; 1.78, centered in 4:3) (16:42). There are five scenes, each providing detail on a subject that was apparently deemed unnecessary for the documentary but is frequently of substantial interest. There is a montage of interviewees expressing their shock and disbelief when the story broke. Another scene recounts how an executive from an unnamed cable network began developing a reality show from the activities at the Emperors Club VIP – until the network attorneys realized what was happening and killed the idea. A third scene details an especially colorful encounter between Bruno and Spitzer, while a fourth examines peculiarities in the FBI’s wiretap that captured Spitzer’s activities. The fifth scene delves into the history of AIG.
HDNet: A Look at Client-9 (HD) (4:21). This is the usual HDNet promo piece.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for All Good Things, Night Catches Us, Monsters and HDNet and HDNet Movies; these can be skipped with the top menu or chapter forward buttons and are also available from the special features menu.
BD-Live. As with its Blu-ray of I Am Love, Magnolia’s BD-Live entry is limited to a selection of trailers, which can be downloaded in either HD or SD and stored locally for playback. As of this writing, the listing was: Vanishing on 7th Street, All Good Things, Night Catches Us, Black Death, Four Lions.
In his documentary on the 2008 financial meltdown, Inside Job, Charles Ferguson keeps asking why no one has been prosecuted for the huge financial losses sustained by the public. He gets some generalized answers, but Client-9 suggests another. Given the pushback one could expect from taking on such powerful interests and the strict standards we demand from our public officials, it would require an almost perfect being to successfully indict and convict those responsible, and survive the process to the end. And perfect beings are in short supply.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub