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Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Blu-ray Review)

31 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.2 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
‘R’ for some sexual material, nudity and language.

Like that sitting president who was badly dented by his own sex scandal not too many years ago, New York’s onetime attorney general turned governor (if not for long) certainly had the right enemies, no matter what his own transgressions. Which is to say that if you think director Alex Gibney had a formidable rogue’s gallery to work with in 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he all but outdoes himself this time in terms of shining glaring lights on smoothies who stink up the boardroom — to say nothing of their more gutter-fighting cronies and that transparent euphemism for sleaze-o's: “political operatives.”

Privileged all his life, full of hubris, driven by (it seems) his real estate tycoon father and then driven to purge white-collar chicanery, Spitzer was brought down by pricey call girl shenanigans he co-perpetrated with an establishment called the Emperors Club VIP — which catered to men with the cash and professional clout of say, an Elvis-caliber rock star (but not the Elvis who once drove a truck). While still being termed “the sheriff of Wall Street,” he did all this while married to a woman who, from her physical appearance and all character testimonials, looks as if she should have been serenaded nightly beneath her window with marimba backing. But this isn’t, after all, the first time a very smart man has done very stupid things when thinking with something other than his brains.

Unfortunately, the time Spitzer picked to do this was when his energy and moral outrage were especially needed to combat those practicing exactly the kind of fraud that began to sink the country in or around (to pick a representative time as good as any other) March 2008. This is when Spitzer’s story broke to the cheers of Wall Street traders who literally popped corks and (to steal an old Bing Crosby phrase) “broke out the bubbly” on the trading floor.

There isn’t anyone currently around who makes more visually arresting documentaries than Gibney, and as in the case of Enron, the Blu-ray makes a difference here. But on top of that, he gets amazing access. For starters, the filmmaker managed to get Spitzer himself on camera — as part of the latter’s self-perpetuated personal rehabilitation project that has since enabled him to become current co-host of a weeknight CNN show with Pulitzer winner Kathleen Parker. Spitzer is extremely forthcoming and articulate when talking about Wall Street ethics or CEO bonuses that are about 500 times what they ought to be. But when asked about sexual nitty-gritty, he gulps, looks for the exits and resembles a kid who’s been caught fabricating a book report.

In addition, Gibney landed a Murderer’s Row of powerful interviewees united in their Spitzer hatred. These merely include venture capitalist, philanthropist and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone — who, whatever else he is or isn’t, has the demeanor of a thug. There’s also equally pugnacious Joseph L. Bruno, the former majority leader of the famously corrupted New York State Senate that Spitzer tried to change. Ever brandishing the Central Casting look of the boxer he is, Bruno is currently on appeal for a two-count conviction of mail and wire fraud. Less outwardly malevolent is Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, whose board ousted him from the presidency of American International Group (AIG) under a cloud of securities fraud that never resulted in any conviction. And then there’s the skuzzy but hugely entertaining political consultant Roger Stone, a physically ship-shape maverick whose own sexual peccadilloes — swingers’ clubs, anyone? — got him bounced from Robert Dole’s presidential campaign. (He also has a Richard Nixon tattoo on his back, which may be the single kinkiest thing in this documentary.) Everyone in this crew, Greenberg possibly excepted, loves to jawbone. As with Spitzer when he’s being asked about his family or sexual preferences, Greenberg clams up whenever he’s asked a direct AIG question about a business he was supposed to be running.

As gabby as anyone here is former Emperor’s Club madam Cecil Sewal — who, at 24, had to have a certain kind of smarts to run such a complex international operation. Yet her demeanor is so giggly (and, to one’s immediate perception, even dizzy) that you have to believe she could parlay it into some sort of screen career playing the heroine’s wacky best friend. Another standout here is Wrenn Schmidt, a striking redheaded knockout who appears as Spitzer’s most frequent escort (an “Angelina”) because the real-life version didn’t want to be identifiable in the movie. So in an unusual move, Gibney hired Schmidt to play her using the real version’s verbatim testimony — an artistic gamble that works because Schmidt is so riveting to watch.

The documentary makes an implied but strong case that at least one of Spitzer’s many enemies (and likely someone on camera here) played fast and loose with the law to take him out, particularly in terms of how certain statutes were applied to him in ways they weren’t in other cases. But Spitzer has none of this, saying that he essentially brought the building down on himself. I liked Client 9 enough to put it on my 10-best list (2010 model) after a first viewing, but it clicked even more after a second. The deleted scenes and outtakes are substantial and as compulsively watchable as the movie. I raced to them the second the main event concluded and watched all in a single sitting.

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