2010 has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documentary films. Between Banksy's gonzo "Exit Through the Gift Shop," Charles Ferguson's financial crisis breakdown "Inside Job," and everything in between ("Catfish," which might not even have been a documentary at all, was still pretty entertaining). One of the best, and most unfairly overlooked, it seems, is Alex Gibney's blistering "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." A multi-pronged take on the disgraced Governor of New York, who went from cracking down on Wall Street's most egregious creeps to being taken down for his own personal foibles, it's a fascinating look at the intersection of sex, money, and power. And it's outrageously entertaining, too, with Gibney getting to interview a whole host of characters on either side of the Spitzer divide.
Last week we got to talk to Gibney (who also directed the great "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," a searing portrait of Jack Abramoff) about the film's mystery/thriller structure, his personal approach to the financial crisis, and who his next subject will be.
The Playlist: Were you surprised by any of the people who agreed to be interviewed for the movie?
Alex Gibney: The surprising thing was that they were all too eager to talk. They really wanted to dance on Spitzer's political grave. He had made a lot of powerful and determined enemies who were very angry at him, so when he fell they were were very happy to talk about it. It was getting the other people to talk that was much more difficult - getting Spitzer to talk and the people from the escort world to talk. That was harder.
Was it surprising to you, the moments when Spitzer would shut down the conversation versus the moments when he was more forthcoming?
Well, most of the things that made him shut down related to his personal behavior and he had to start reckoning with why he did what he did. I think the film show's part of his character, which is a division between his public persona and his private life. And it's hard for people to answer questions about his private life in that way. I give him credit for sitting there and what you see in the film is that difficulty. And it's probably a difficulty for all of us. But then it also raises larger questions about the division between our public selves and our private lives and whether it's appropriate to reconcile the two. Or whether it's possible.
Did you ever try to get his wife [who got a lot of grief for standing by his side throughout the ordeal] to talk?
I certainly tried hard. I went to her directly. But she declined.
The structure of the movie is very striking. At what point did you decide to frame it as this sort of political thriller?
That seemed to me the way that we should do it right from the start. That it should have that mood. That kind of political mystery thriller. There seemed to be something about it that lent itself to that. It was like "The Big Sleep" to me. And the deeper you got into it, sometimes the less you understood about the way things work. Though, at the end, you have a greater understanding of just how corrupt our political system is. But the notion of the thriller was very important to me. Because it is a thriller! It's a mystery thriller! Because you think you know what it's all about, and in some ways you do. But that's just the surface. That's just the beginning. The mystery/thriller exposes a culture that is so seduced by private misdeeds that we miss the economic crimes that keep a few people very rich and the rest of us in fear. It's about the way the politics of destruction lead to the destruction of politics.
And it seemed to be a more personal way to explore the current economic crisis.
Yes. This is a kind of close-up look at the economic crisis - that the powers that operate behind the scenes and how hard it is to enforce any chance. So, you know, the kind of hubris and arrogance that Spitzer inhabited but even more so, his enemies, the titans of Wall Street. You see it up close and personal. It's the hotbed of power, which is what this film is all about. It's a funny thing: "Client 9" is really more "inside" than "Inside Job" (a film I like and respect). "Inside Job" looks at the mechanics of the political economy; "Client 9" looks inside the machine room at the people who operate the levers. In "Client 9," I tried to make people feel the hot seductiveness and the cool cruelty of power. Until we understand the passions of the powerful, we will never stop their abuses.
Did you see a lot of parallels between the stories of Jack Abramoff and Eliot Spitzer?
Certainly, there were some parallels. In both cases, Abramoff and Spitzer underestimated their enemies. But I'm very interested in the psychology of denial. You know, there was a kind of personal corruption to Spitzer even though publically, he was not corrupt at all. But I think that there's this kind of self deception, that he could imagine that he could get away with it. But also in the powerful men in the film (Greenberg, Bruno, and others). There is a belief that because they are powerful, wealthy, or influential men, that they can't be corrupt. That what they do cannot be crooked, because they're basically good men. Their arrogance and their hubris, basically, blinds them to their own flaws. I think, there's an interesting moment at the end of the film, when we put up a sign that says "How much was Hank Greenberg [CEO of AIG]'s stock worth after the fall of AIG?" And he says: "Virtually worthless; $100 million." Now, in this country, when the unemployment rate is at 10%, when people are scraping by, where Detroit is a ghost town because of the kind of economic cataclysm we've seen, to hear a guy say $100 million is virtually worthless is staggering in terms of how out-of-touch he is with himself and the society around them.
It seems like nothing is ever enough with these guys.
You know, you raise a good point with that there, just to interrupt. That is the prevailing sentiment now among many of the rich and powerful - that there is never enough. The amount of the GMP that they control grows everyday. And yet they want more! You can see it in this most recent failure to allow the tax cuts to expire for people who make over $250,000 or people that make over $1 million, because those people at the top just want more and more and more. It's the law of the jungle. And the lions want to eat every piece of flesh that's out there. "Client 9" is all about the jungle.
And a lot of the bad guys of Wall Street were the most colorful. Was there ever an impulse to linger on them?
They were entertaining! I think I gave Greenberg, Bruno, Stone, a tremendous amount of play, because I find them to be very intriguing characters. And they're great characters, from the standpoint of a filmmaker of a drama. They're wonderfully colorful and very powerful characters.
Do you think you figured Spitzer out, at all?
I think Eliot Spitzer has a great strength which is also his greatest weakness - that is, his ability to compartmentalize. And I think for a long time he was going to be able to compartmentalize his private behavior and his public works. And at the end of the day, he wasn't able to do that. And now he has to reckon with that fact. I think that a lot of us compartmentalize. But he was very extreme in that way. But he is an extraordinarily powerful thinker, but he isn't nearly as sophisticated at understanding the world of human emotions - both at how his enemies might have reacted at his attacks and his own personal weaknesses. He's much less sophisticated about that as he is, in understanding in an intellectual way, the workings of a political economy, in terms of how power is wielded and how power is wielded against us. And it's funny because, emotionally, I think he feels the bite of the unfairness of it all, which is what motivates him to go forward. But on an interpersonal level, he doesn't have a very sophisticated understanding of how people relate to each other.
Do you see him returning to politics?
I think so. It will depend. It will depend on us to a certain extent on us and our culture. You know - can we get over private indiscretions and just focus on what people do on the public sphere? But at the same time, you know, this guy broke a certain amount of trust, personally, but also with us, in terms of how he allowed himself to be vulnerable to his enemies. So the question is - can we trust him again? But in terms of what he has to offer, I think he's an extraordinary public figure who has a tremendous amount to offer in terms of understanding how to make our economy both stronger and fairer. And I don't think there's any question about that.
So who's the next subject of your documentary?
And what's your take?
You'll have to wait for the movie...