May 10, 2011


Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney once again takes aim at a high profile American institution/figure; charting the meteoric rise of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, his attempts to rein in Wall Street and his fall from grace when Governor. Gibney is not a documentarian that uses charming and humorous info-graphics and nor does he directly attack interview subjects, preferring something more subtle and intelligent. He may use narration to point out details, or to highlight certain events on the timeline but for the most part, this is a documentary with talking heads. He has gained access to a number of the power players in the drama and, for the most part, just lets them talk. And just like his previous financial world related doco, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, it’s fascinating.

I’m not sure what it is about American politics and political figures but they have an intriguing pull on me and, I imagine, a lot of other people. Perhaps this is merely just another symptom of the cultural influence that America holds over the rest of the world – they control a vast amount of the entertainment business after all. Most people know Eliot Spitzer, if they know him at all, as one of a rash of American political figures brought low by an extra-marital sex scandal. Before that though, he was the “Sherriff of Wall Street”; a take-no-prisoners Attorney General whose strategy consisted of Attack! Attack! Attack! Gibney takes his time in setting up this Spitzer, the relentless crusader fighting greed and corruption on Wall Street, in part to show us just how far the Attorney General has to fall. Spitzer himself proves to be an intelligent and engaging interview subject, as you might expect from someone as well practised at public speaking as he would be. But Gibney doesn't just focus on Spitzer in the first part, instead widening his focus to include the Wall St. power figures and the online "escort service" that Spitzer was caught frequenting. These are peppered throughout, to give you a hint of things to come.

Spitzer, seemingly bucking the trend, fully owns and acknowledges that no-one was responsible for his downfall except himself. While the documentary more than suggests there were other forces at work - from Wall St to the FBI - the ex-Governor does not indulge in shifting the blame. It's obvious he made enemies in his time; powerful, vindictive enemies that are certainly out to get him. Spitzer was no angel, but he seemed to actually want to do the right thing; he wanted to fight for the regular guy on the street.

There are interviews with Spitzer, his political and economic enemies and various people on both sides – including Spitzer’s actual favourite escort, Angelina (more specifically, an actress reading her interview answers) – but there is no appearance from Ashley, the escort he was caught with. But then Gibney doesn’t seem too concerned by that; portrait of Ashley is built up through snippets of public interviews and appearances. Parts of her story are disputed by others (including fellow escorts) but Gibney sidelines her; she’s not the story or focus. The most cringe inducing moment comes when Ashley, who came to be known as "Spitzer's girl" by the media, appears on a Fox news show to sing a Christmas song. It's terrible, awkward and cheesy and is a small amount of further proof showing how far American TV news has fallen as well. Gibney takes a wide focus on the events and history but always, the focus is on Spitzer.

A documentary like this, looking back on recent events but with the advantage of hindsight, can properly contextualise events and their timeline that contemporary news reports might not. In the midst of a story the media can easily be whipped into a frenzy and Gibney uses this to his full advantage. News reports and documents are hauled out, poked at and scrutinised for bias. It is made fairly plain that the Governor was made a target by someone; he had no shortage of enemies. But Gibney, as much as is possible, sticks to the facts. Client 9 is an impressive, wide-ranging documentary that demands you pay attention and keep up. Gibney might be carrying his own bias, known as he is for being no fan of Wall St himself, but given recent events you can see why.

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