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Film Review

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Why do obviously intelligent, rational men sometimes do the most self destructive things, things that wreck careers and lives? The ancient Greeks had a word for that sense of omnipotence that often leads to self-inflicted disaster: hubris. Often these reckless acts are sexual, as we saw with Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, who clearly had presidential potential, resigned after it became public that he had hired women from a high end escort service. In Spitzer's case, this revelation was particularly damaging because as NY state attorney general, he had helped prosecute escort services, and was known for being ultra straight and demanding. But some were convinced that the leaks were done by Spitzer's political enemies, especially in the financial industry, who were frightened and angry at his attention to fraud in Wall Street and the banks.

Alex Gibney, an accomplished documentary film maker (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) who has produced more than his share of important and award winning films, felt that Spitzer's downfall was much more than the story of a politician's stupidity. Gibney has written and directed Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, a fascinating and riveting account, following Spitzer from his first days as the Manhattan district attorney to his election as New York attorney general, and finally to his election, in 2007, as the governor of New York State. Spitzer was, as a friend says, a member of the lucky sperm club. Born into a well to do family, brilliant (editor of the Harvard Law Review), articulate, handsome, graduating from the best schools, and with a passion for justice, he seemed to exemplify the maxim that to whom much is given, much is owed. As district attorney, he brought an end to the Gambino family's control of the garment and trucking industries in New York City. He also began investigating and prosecuting white collar crime, securities fraud, environmental crimes, few of which has been addressed by previous district attorneys. This, long before the financial crash of 2008. He soon became nationally known.

In 1998 Spitzer was elected to be the attorney general of New York, an office that had traditionally deferred to the federal government in the investigation and prosecution of national issues, such as mutual fund fraud. Not Spitzer. He immediately began cases against Wall Street firms and other financial industry giants. He sued the head of AIG for fraud, and sued the directors of the NY Stock Exchange over the excessive pay package ($140 million) to the chairman. The financial industry was alarmed, and considered him an enemy of capitalism. Spitzer made many enemies in the financial and insurance industries, and Gibney's contention is that these enemies, armed with the knowledge of Spitzer's call girl dates, brought him down. The facts he presents support his conclusion.

Spitzer married Silda Wall, a bright, very attractive student that he met in law school, and had three daughters. They had been married for 20 years, to all appearances happily. Yet, Spitzer contacted a high priced escort service, the Emperors' Club, and began to hire $1000/hour (often with 2 hour minimums) call girls to meet him in hotels. He always paid in cash, with his own money, and not during working hours. Although prostitution is illegal, the clients are never prosecuted in New York, only the madams. The Federal Attorney for New York City, a Republican appointee, had begun an investigation, wiretapping the Emperors' Club. Not only was this type of investigation unheard of for the federal attorney's office, according to knowledgeable sources, but what triggered the search? The investigation identified a number of clients hiring these women, and client 9 on their list was Eliot Spitzer. Word of the investigation and the identity of client 9 was leaked to the newspapers, and in March, 2008, the New York Times published the story. It was a bombshell, to say the least, and Eliot Spitzer resigned two days later, with his wife at his side. To his credit, Spitzer blames only himself.

Gibney's genius is his ability to tell a complicated story with a mix of fascinating interviews and archival footage, underlain by excellent narration. Some of these interviews are unforgettable, including Spitzer himself, who cooperated fully, according to Gibney, with interview requests. The principal woman that Spitzer had hired would not consent to appear on camera, so Gibney hired an actress to read her testimony. This is fully disclosed at the beginning of that segment of the film. It is an unusual but effective device, much more so than simply narrating her words. Everyone else is the real thing. There are so many colorful and outstanding commentaries that the film becomes a remarkable living history told by real insiders and the participants: the madam, other girls, politicians, friends, CEO's, attorneys, and more. It is an amazing cast of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and Gibney weaves it all together brilliantly. No one will fall asleep here.

The parallels with Clinton's experience are striking, but Clinton had a vast reservoir of friends to help him. Even so, Kenneth Starr crippled the remainder of Clinton's term. Spitzer had battled the NY State legislature as governor, and did not have that network of friends in political office. He had little choice except to resign. A resignation that cut short much of the investigations into the financial industry.

Opened two weeks ago and still playing at Opera Plaza. Apologies for not getting this review out sooner, but if you haven't already seen Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, don't miss it. It is a fascinating film, and important, closely related to Inside Job in its revelations of the power of the financial industry.

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