Monday, December 20, 2010

Alex Gibney's CLIENT 9 (or Citizen Eliot)

When I first heard of Eliot Spitzer it was in a Playboy interview with George Carlin about five years ago.  He was asked if there were by any chance any politicians he admired.  He mostly scoffed at the mere nature of the question, but did name drop an attorney general from New York state who was going after corruption.  As soon as he noted this, I took note of the man immediately (if he's good enough for Carlin, who thinks the politicians sucking stems back to the public itself, and he may not be wrong on that count by much, he's good enough for me).  And Alex Gibney's Client 9, a tragic-comic story of a politician's rise and fall, is marvelous for how it never lets its subject off the hook, but at the same time reveals just how crooked everything else was around him.  It's that rare documentary on a public figure: balanced.

What is politics except people who are in a position of power who can be virtuous or be heinous, or maybe both at the same time.  One of the interviewees, a man who helped facilitate many meetings with prostitutes and their clients, mentions how there is an old Chinese saying of man being the product of lower nature (animals) and higher powers (angels).  It's a bit of a hifalutin statement, but it does call to mind what a human being is.  Another person near the end, one of those "summing up" kind of sentences, makes the point how we look at politicans at times like Gods.  And they're not.  They're just human beings.  Eliot Spitzer, who became governor of New York, was mostly undone by his own flaws as a human being.  But what about his enemies, or just people who would love to see his downfall?

Spitzer, to my thinking after seeing a story that encapsulates what he was about, was a hero for people getting screwed over, by Wall Street, the environment, corruption, anything.  Looking to politicians and people in authority like a prosecutor to not only go after people doing corrupt things, but to try and change the laws to make sure it doesn't happen again.  Spitzer gained notoriety in his years as an AG in New York for going after corporations, busting up Wall Street, environmental protection, you name it, he went after it.  He could be abrasive, and when he became governor there were times when he flat out couldn't work well with others.

But he had guts and balls, and when you're a Democrat that's a really big attribute.  For some, if you're as dogged in pursuing like Spitzer, it puts a red flag in front of one's bull's eyes.  One has to be able to push back when Republican bullies (who are a dime a dozen really) get up in one's metaphorical grill.  Spitzer wouldn't have that.  He's the kind of man whose principles and policies and ideas were for regulation.  Ironically after he resigned, many of the reforms he did on Wall Street were reversed.  Six months later, the economy collapsed.  Some of his enemies, oddly enough, blame Spitzer as the sole reason (one of them the ex-CEO of AIG).  Others are more of the wonky-wacky sort, like this guy pictured below, Roger Stone, who goes between political consultant and gigolo with private-eye thrown in there.  And a helluva tupe and boob job.

But yeah, Spitzer.  He's not the only focal point here, though as the central tragic-heroic figure everything seems to come back to him.  One of Gibney's interests here is to show the inner-workings of the High-End escort services in Manhattan, specifically the Empire Club, which hosted Spitzer (under his pseudonym "George Fox").  He wasn't the only person of significance frequenting the club, which was international; one such story of a British international figure of royalty is an anecdote that gets a few laughs (mostly from watching the former owner of the club giggling away).  But he was the one that attracted the attention ultimately of prosecutors when they looked into busting the club anyway.  We learn about the process of the girls rankings.  They aren't degraded or stupid like many think prostitutes usually are, but are more like (to the elite and rich who can pay at cheapest a grand for an hour of high-class sex) pieces on a new car lot.  They got to read the details of the item, maybe ride it out for a bit, and if it's good maybe they can take it home and show it to the wife... okay, maybe not that last part.

And a true stroke of genius on Gibney's end is how to deal with an interviewee who agrees to speak with him but not on camera.  Instead of the awkward position of putting in lots of footage of her not looking at the camera- when Spitzer himself, for example, gets the Errol Morris style 'interrotron' device of speaking at the camera in interviews to really *see* him- Gibney takes all of the words spoken by this "Angela" person, and gives it to an actress.  What's incredible is that this woman is interviewed for several scenes in the movie before one is told that she's an actress.  Could have (and did) fool me!  This is not to say that the woman looks trashy in her high-class call-girl way.  On the contrary, she's such a good actress she's able to fool one with a double existence on camera.  A double life that is carefully created is something Spitzer, by nature of the tragic flaw that makes his undoing, is exploited beautifully by Spitzer.

But it's a flaw that was exploited ultimately by those who wanted to bring him down.  It just has to be said, he was railroaded.  Gibney stacks up the odds, as they were in reality, against Spitzer when he was an attorney general and then as governor.  Again, sometimes he made his enemies very calculatedly (calling up someone and saying "This is war, and I fire the first shot" at someone is fighting words, partner).  Other times, they (they being the rich like the CEO Hank Greenberg at AIG or the man who ran the floor at the Wall Street) saw Spitzer as a direct threat.

Keep in mind that Greenberg, as shown in the film from an interview with Charlie Rose, thought once he was out that his stock was "Worthless... only 100 million."  Spitzer was the kind of guy who is a threat because he looks out for the 'little' guy, like, you know, people who might make *less* than a million a year.  In other words, someone who was moral and had a conscience, and in a place like the Governor's mansion in Albany; Gibney, by the way, gets evocative shots of the Escher-staircases and gargoyles, like entering into a castle out of Shakespeare's wicked royalty plays.

Watching Spitzer in the 'interrotron' is captivating for what he says, but then as we get to know him a little better as the movie goes on the little facial flinches and moments where he gathers his thoughts as to what to say.  He's very careful with his words, but he never sounds dishonest or 'off' like other interviewees with various players, even those who look genuine like the former Republican he worked with in the Governor's office.  And there is a deeper truth that comes out through body language in certain moments, like when the more cringe-worthy questions are asked of him of sex or the 'what-ifs' or thoughts in retrospect about what he did or thought might occur.  It's not quite the same as with, say, the 'interview' with the actress playing Angela.   Spitzer doesn't need to perform for anyone.  He's got little to lose at this point (he now has a show on CNN he co-anchors, a step down into the media-land, but it'll do for now).

As it stands, Client 9 paints a sordid, heartbreaking but cruelly funny portrait of politics and corporate America as something very fragile and distasteful, and that in comparison Spitzer is a God-send.  So what, he had sex?  I'm more upset over the hypocrisy of him busting prostitution rings and then being caught in one himself (albeit, as the movie points out, "clients" of these escort services are almost never sought out for prosecution, save for this case with the Mann Act), than for the so-called moral outrage of his indiscretions.  At this point, following so many political scandals (and some of those politicians still in office, guess which political party they're with), can you trust anyone in that department?  So what's left?  Integrity to do what's not only right but possible with the right sense of what Spitzer had drilled in to him when he was younger: make the move on the tennis court that strikes hard and deep.  If you're going to fuck with Spitzer, as one interviewee notes, "use a spike with steel, wood will just break off."  

And as for the "#1" herself, Ashley Dupree?  Oh, she's doing just fine, what with her NY Post advice column and Playboy spread and singing career like on Fox News.  Oy vey.  One man falls, another woman rises.  Check, if not Checkmate.

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