As the Tribeca Film Festival comes to a close, everyone seems to agree that the highlight was Eliot Spitzer -- or, rather, Alex Gibney's wry, even-handed account of the disgraced former New York governor's rise and fall, which may or may be called Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. (It sure has a better ring to it than The Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film. The version of the movie I saw on Monday night definitely had the title Client 9.) While it wouldn't be appropriate for me to review this work-in-progress cut, I did want to share some quick observations about its merits:
The Credibility Factor It's an honest, believable portrait. Despite the many strange ingredients of Spitzer's final undoing -- including the multiple enemies on Wall Street and particularly the head honchos at AIG, whose cheeriness at his public embarrassment seemed almost slimier than his own seedy deeds -- Gibney avoids the conspiratorial route and sticks to the facts. The man willfully put himself in the line of fire long before anyone knew about his trysts with the gals at New York Confidential. Spitzer was a tough-as-nails New York Attorney General prone to behind-the-scenes outbursts, which he jokingly blamed on his non-existent evil twin "Irwin." In an interview with Gibney, Spitzer practically blushes when confronted about his temper. Although he remains somewhat reserved on camera, he nevertheless comes across far realer than he ever did at the podium. Pressed to justify his illegal philandering, he explains it as a methodical way of caving to temptations without the emotional connections that would come with a premarital affair. Or "something like that," he says.
Comedy/Tragedy The movie is hilarious, and not just because of ditzy New York Confidential head Cecil Suwal, as Leah Rozen reported. Gibney stages the events of the past decade as an extended farce that culminated with Spitzer's prostitution scandal but got pretty weird long before then. Joe Bruno, a current convicted felon and Spitzer's most obnoxious foe during their joint time in office, becomes a bizarrely funny internal foil to the leading man's Wall Street clean-up act. As Gibney puts it in a voiceover, Bruno was "the turd in Elliot's punch bowl." Roger J. Stone, meanwhile, serves as the movie's shameful goon-for-hire and self-made political cartoon -- a man so intent on enforcing conservative ideals that he has a Richard Nixon tattoo on his back. "I believe in a gonzo brand of politics," he says, while basically confessing to having left a threatening voicemail for Spitzer's father. His enabler, the cantankerous investment banker Ken Langone, acts like he lives in a 24/7 showdown with Spitzer as if they stumbled into a Western-style duel. Despite all this, the story retains a dramatic edge. Spitzer restrains himself and places the blame for his downfall squarely in his own lap. "My view," he says, "is that I brought myself down."
It's a Movie! Unlike Gibney's Jack Abramoff profile Casino Jack and the United States of Money, his latest feature has more going on than a basic arrangement of talking heads and a few snappy graphics. Gibney injects the story with an appreciable amount of energy, thanks to a series cinematic tricks. He hires an actress to read the lines from an interview with "Angelina," the prostitute Spitzer visited most often, since she refused to appear on camera. He cycles through various media images at a rapid pace, uses ironic music cues, and applies a great soundtrack that includes Cat Power's "Sea of Love" set to a montage of other politicians whose careers got jumbled up in sex scandals. (The tune works a lot more effectively than it did in Juno.) Oh, and spoiler alert! The last shot of Client 9 shows Spitzer wandering the streets of New York alone, blending with the crowd as Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" ends the story on an optimistic note. Even news junkies readily familiar with much of the movie's narrative have likely never contemplated its subject like this.
Here's Gibney discussing Spitzer at Tribeca: