Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-snagging documentary Inside Job may well have told us pretty much everything that we need to know about the worldwide financial crisis, hurling information at the audience with such a barbed, excited ferocity that it’s nigh-on impossible not to become swept up in it, regardless of your politics. There is certainly wiggle room for another documentary on the subject, though, an altogether smaller, more intimate chronicle of not only the cause of the collapse itself, but the manner in which it could have been prevented. Just as valid a treatise as Ferguson’s doc – it has a lesser density of information but it is far more human – Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer however also boasts a political intrigue story with all the hallmarks of a finely-tuned suspense thriller.
Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side) sits down with the so-called White Knight of New York, former Governor Elliot Spitzer, who in 2008 took to task the corrupt corridors of Wall Street with an iron fist, before suffering an almighty downfall once it came to light that Spitzer had been using the services of prostitutes. In candid, extensive interviews with Spitzer, Gibney is able to paint an uncommonly personal portrait of a high-profile public figure while never escaping the bigger picture, concisely explaining the financial meltdown in essentially lamens terms.
If Inside Job is the main course, then Client 9 goes down like dessert. Ferguson’s documentary offers such a comprehensive summary and analysis of the financial collapse that there’s the worry Gibney could simply pore over well-trod soundbytes and statistics. Thankfully, there is no such trouble, for while this is at its heart still about the abject corruption that is rife in both Wall Street and the overly placatory government, Client 9 devotes far more screen time to its fascinating eponymous protagonist, who is imbued with all of the moral complexity of a classic anti-hero.
In his own words, Spitzer attests that it was probably hubris that brought him to his knees; after all, anyone accruing the power that he did, and using it to take down some of the United States’ wealthiest people would get a kick out of it. That he failed to keep a reign on it, and let it not only tarnish his political reputation but damage his family life, is his true failing, and he strikes us as incredibly embarassed because of it. Presented as a striking, cohesive narrative, Gibney describes Spitzer’s rise to fame as the saviour of New York, before granting us entry into the seedy world of online escort services and call girls which brought the Governor’s run inexorably to its end. Spitzer candidly riffs on his own highs and lows, and while he doesn’t leave the impression as being particularly likeable (the opposition’s claims about his temper seem plausible), he is easy to admire, and a sympathetic, flawed figure nonetheless.
Not satisfied to simply muckrake Spitzer’s transgressions – which it does with disarming aplomb, even hiring an actress to play one of the call girl interviewees who requested her voice and likeness be altered – Gibney uses Spitzer’s predicament as a jumping-off point on which to discuss morality, the mass media machine, the maddeningly superficial nature of politics and the duality of a politician’s personal and professional life. Most shockingly, Gibney convincingly presents the fact that Wall Street’s elite surveilled Spitzer extensively with the hope of catching him out, simply to embarass and discredit him rather than put him in hot legal water (after all, the customers of prostitution rings are never really convicted). Relying on the media feeding frenzy that inevitably ensued, Wall Street’s brass really had to do very little and simply sit back and relish in Spitzer’s decline.
A politician is forced to resign over a personal infraction; what’s new? What makes this more than just a faintly interesting story about a cocky Governor who fell foul and paid for it, is the consequences of the scandal; while Spitzer is no doubt a fool for being so naive – or arrogant, perhaps – as to believe that he could get away with it, the disturbing ripple effect, of the media latching on, of Spitzer’s public opinion waning, and of his departure from office, essentially halted his noble crusade in its tracks. Many would even go so far as to suggest that Spitzer could have seriously reduced the effect of the downturn had his investigations continued, yet, alas, when hubris combines with desperate opportunism, the result is inevitably bleak.
A little post-term context would have been nice, for the film largely leaves us in the lurch about Spitzer’s current activities, but for the most part, this is, like the very best films, both educational and entertaining. Less a black-and-white critique of greedy bankers and more a compelling character study that’s also surprisingly funny at times, Client 9 probably won’t make you like Elliot Spitzer, but it will damn sure make you respect him.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer has a limited U.K. cinema run from today.
This article was first posted on March 4, 2011