Documentaries used to be the poor relative of the movie world, struggling to attract a few crumbs of attention. In the past many suffered from an earnest, righteous, hectoring tone, resembling an essay by an eager beaver sophomore. This season, docs have become the star attraction of theatrical releases. Soaring above the others -- and most recent features as well -- are Charles Ferguson's Inside Job -- and now, virtually a companion piece, Alex Gibney's newly opened Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
Paradoxically, Client 9 is mesmerizing partly because it offers the texture and ironies of a feature film or novel. At times it brings to mind Dominick Dunne's crowd-pleasing romans a clef which detail the rich and powerful behaving badly. Spitzer's tale delivers a similar narrative: A powerful man is laid low by his own libidinous urges. Then, thickening the stew, the financiers whom Spitzer sought to regulate earlier in his career go gunning for him. Meet politics as blood sport. Intriguing, too, is how Gibney enticed his subjects to participate in the film. It's plenty easy to fault Spitzer's hypocrisy, but trust me, he's outdone by his enemies, a Joseph Bruno and other well-heeled thugs, taking shamelessness to new lows.
Then there's the story's larger, interior mystery, one with universal resonance. Though the Luv Guv doesn't "do introspection," in his own words, we the viewers are invited to speculate on the enigma of self sabotage. What the hell was Spitzer thinking? More broadly, why, with everything going for him, does someone court his own downfall? Moving fluidly from the private to the public, the film also invites speculation on the dumbing down of America. What kind of country has this become when citizens ignore questions of public policy and their own self-interest, focusing instead on whether Spitzer wore knee-high black socks? (Gibney has it on excellent authority that Spitzer did not.)
Recently I had the chance to discuss some of these issues with Alex Gibney in the offices of Client 9's distributor Magnolia Pictures.
Erica Abeel: How did you arrive at the structure of Client 9?
Alex Gibney: We were doing Spitzer's rise and fall, so you start with the scandal, which everyone remembers. Then you flash back and see how he got to be who he was. With the exception of the beginning it's kind of roughly chronological. But alongside of that we're juxtaposing two worlds: The world of law and order and the world of the escorts. And at some point they merge. We introduced the escort world all along, partly because it was very much a part of the investment banker world that Spitzer was investigating. So there was a certain irony there.
EA: How were you able to convince your cast of power players to participate in the film? Particularly men like Frank Langone [billionaire businessman, singled out by Spitzer for approving a staggeringly high pay package for Dick Grasso, former head of the then non-profit NY Stock Exchange].
AG: It was easier to get those guys because this was a scandal story, one about the abuse of power. And these people were only too happy to dance on Spitzer's grave. So when I asked, would you like to talk about Eliot Spitzer, they were delighted. Hank Greenberg [CEO of AIG] wanted to talk [especially] after the work-in progress screening at Tribeca. His lawyers felt that there were issues that Greenberg would want to be heard on.
EA: Even knowing your reputation for investigative documentaries?
AG: But my reputation is also one of someone who goes after people who abuse power. In this case a man abused the trust of citizens who were hoping he was going to be their knight errant.
EA: Well, to me Langone comes off as a thug.
AG: He comes off as a guy who's tough, a ruthless character. But he engages me because he's also so plainspoken. What you see is what you get. I have a certain respect for that.
EA: And why did Spitzer - who makes an impressive showing, I think -- agree to cooperate?
AG: He knew we were doing the story anyway and he wanted to have his say, his perspective represented. That was the argument we gave and one he bought.
EA: How did you locate Angelina [Spitzer's main squeeze and not, as the tabloids reported, Ms. Dupree]?
AG: I managed to find what her real name was. Then I found people we knew in common, partly through Facebook. I got an introduction and sat down with her. I said, "This is what I know. Will you talk to me?" She said, "On condition that you don't reveal who I am."
EA: Have you taken flack for using an actress to stand in for Angelina -- instead of using the real person plus electronically altered voice?
AG: I have no regrets and think it was more convincing than to use that hoary old convention.
EA: What do you think of the comments about Client 9 as a companion piece to Inside Job?
AG: Inside Job does a very good job of showing the mechanics of the economic meltdown. What Client 9 does is show you the hot breath of power. And the way power is used and abused, a clash of the titans. Inside Job is like an extreme wide angle. Client 9 is up close and personal.
EA: As a viewer I didn't gain a lot of insight into why Spitzer self-destructed. The mystery remains. When he invokes hubris that doesn't say much to me. Did you come away with any insight into that?
AG: I have some guesses, and some insight, but I think ultimately it does remain a mystery Though in some ways not. Sex is an urge, it's not so much about the brain. What's really a mystery is that somebody who in so many other ways was so calculating, and who knew the consequences of what would happen if he were caught, why he then did what he did. We can guess: He was a thrill seeker, he he lived on the edge, he liked risk. He was a big alpha male. Maybe this was providing some kick for him that he felt he needed. But there may never be a good answer. Why do you do certain things when you know what kind of repercussions there will be? Very often you don't think about what would happen if you were caught, you just do it.
EA: In Europe the sex lives of politicians are private and even applauded. A Real Man has a mistress kind of thing. Francois Mitterand had a wife and mistress. But the press was not allowed to go after him.
AG: But they profiled her at the funeral [laughs].
EA: Well, he had a good long run before that.
AG: That's the way it used to be in this country. JFK was well-known to have many mistresses and to have hired many prostitutes and nobody wrote about it. Now have we gone too far in the other direction. We're so much more concerned with the sex lives of politicians than we are with their public policies.
EA: How some pol satisfies his sex drive does not concern me in the least. It feels to me like a right-wing conspiracy to divert attention onto, I dunno, the latest about Sandra Bullock. Bottom line, Spitzer wasn't hurting anyone.
AG: It may not have been easy for his wife.
EA: But that's that's none of our business.
AG: I agree with you. I don't think that it is our business. In terms of public policy what does it matter? On the other hand, does it matter if a sitting governor is breaking the law and doing stuff that he actually prosecutes? I think we have to take character into consideration. Still, he did it all on his own time and with his own money. He wasn't dipping into the public purse, he wasn't cheating us of our time that we were paying for.
I think the goal should be: it's only of interest if there's some aspect of the abuse of power. John Ensign uses his relationship with lobbyists to enrich the husband of the woman with whom he's having an affair. That's an abuse of power. Mark Sanford flies down to Argentina and doesn't let the state know where he's going. That's an abuse of power.
EA: I was struck by Spitzer's comment that it was less damaging emotionally to be with a prostitute.
AG: He made a calculated decision that he was going to satisfy his sexual urges rather than have a relationship. Ironically, he ended up up having a relationship with Angelina. That's the tricky thing about sex, sometimes it's not so simple to separate.
EA: Guess that's another movie. There emerges from your film a portrait of American capitalism and their henchmen that's repellent. Is that a goal of the film?
AG: It's one of the goals. You see capitalism run amok. Spitzer would say he's a big fan of capitalism but he believes it needs to be properly regulated. Yet these guys don't want to be regulated.
EA: It's unprecedented, the economic inequality in this country.
AG: It is unprecedented and it's getting worse and worse.
EA: Your film made me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, "the rich are different." But this is a whole other order of magnitude.
AG: The numbers are so much bigger. Just add a couple of zeros. And they've surrounded themselves with an ideology that makes selfishness a virtue. That's a problem.
EA: Does a film like Client 9 have the potential to change anything
AG: A film like this raises a lot of questions, and rather odd ones. There's no point that's either Democratic or Republican. It reverberates in unexpected ways and beyond any typical interest group. It shows how we think about our politicians. And how we think about ourselves. We seem so interested in projecting our own struggle with certain values on certain pols, using using them to live vicariously, instead of just judging them for their public policies.