When Eliot Spitzer resigned as New York's governor in the spring of 2008, his name tarnished by a splashy prostitution scandal, it seemed the very apex of basic, tragic male hubris. But to Alex Gibney, it didn't add up.
Sure enough as Gibney, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, began peeling back the layers of this seedy tale of temptation, he uncovered what seemed to him a full-scale political assassination, with a web of characters and intrigue to make Agatha Christie proud.
"It's kind of a Murder on the Orient Express, where a lot of people had their knives out and they're all plunging them into the body," Gibney says.
His new documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, suggests Spitzer's sins were unearthed and exposed by powerful enemies he earned over years of abrasiveness. In that sense the film's subtitle, which may seem generic, is apt: In Gibney's narrative, Spitzer's fall was inextricably tied to his steamrolling rise.
Gibney set out "unsure where the story would take me," and wound up feeling some sympathy for Spitzer, and ultimately presents two portraits in tension. On the one hand, there is the Spitzer many love to hate: he has a short fuse, a sharp tongue, obvious arrogance and he ultimately proved to be a hypocrite of the first order, having targeted as Attorney General of New York the very sorts of prostitution outfits he would later patronize.
On the other hand, there is the man who, for a relatively benign crime, saw a career path pointed at the presidency shattered by a cabal of power brokers. (Gibney features former AIG chairman Hank Greenberg, former New York Stock Exchange chief Ken Langone and powerful political consultant Roger Stone, among others, as part of his conspiracy theory.) It was partly Spitzer's character flaws that made enemies of them, but also his admirable role as the so-called "Sheriff of Wall Street," crusading against corporate greed and dubious dealings.
"At the end of the day, I didn't make this [film]to try to further or try to interrupt his career," says Gibney, whose films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and a forthcoming documentary about cyclist Lance Armstrong.
"We have to live in a grey area, rather than an area of black hats or white hats. I think, particularly in the United States, we like to think of people as either all good or all bad, and that in itself is a kind of flaw."
The film's centrepiece is a series of lengthy interviews with Spitzer himself, which Gibney wrangled by convincing Spitzer he needed to reckon publicly with his transgressions. The lone stipulation was that Gibney would run any new information he unearthed by Spitzer first.
Phone calls, e-mails and off-camera chats followed before Gibney filmed four interviews totalling nearly a dozen hours, largely shot in close-up. Gibney says he doesn't like to "play gotcha" in interviews, challenging apparent falsehoods on the spot, but he asks tough and uncomfortable questions, and sometimes the former governor flinches.
"Those close-up angles allow you to see the blink of an eye or the wince or a kind of narrowing of his eyes. You can see when he gets angry," Gibney says. "At other times, you see a vulnerability. Even though you don't hear it in the words, you see him about to cry."
Though he couldn't talk much-publicized escort Ashley Dupre into an interview, Gibney landed extensive conversations with members of Sptizer's chosen escort service, Emperors Club VIP, including its madam Cecil Suwal and a woman known as "Angelina" whom Gibney reveals was actually Spitzer's main squeeze.
Gibney says many of his interviewees plainly lied, but "Angelina" comes across as candid and thoughtful. She describes high-end prostitution as a well-paid job she chose (she has since become a commodities trader), and she personifies Gibney's wider theme of the human struggle to balance high ideals with animal instincts.
Shortly before the Client 9 world premiere, Toronto International Film Festival programmer Thom Powers mused that "after this account of [Spitzer's]rise and fall, no one should count out his chances to rise again." Since then, Spitzer has started an attempted comeback with Parker Spitzer, a poorly reviewed talk show on CNN.
Meanwhile, Gibney seems genuinely unsure whether his work will help or hinder those efforts, but knowing Spitzer, he is sure it won't deter him.
"There are certain people who are junkies, who desperately need the public eye. And I think [Spitzer's]one of those people. I think he's drawn to that like a moth to the flame, and he can't stay out," Gibney says.
"There is a future for Eliot Spitzer in the public arena, but it remains to be seen what that will be."
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer opens in Toronto and Montreal on Friday.