February Films: “Client 9”

I watched Client 9, the documentary about Eliot Spitzer’s rise and fall, tonight. I expected this movie to be rather superficial – more a recounting of Spitzer’s prostitution scandal than a serious investigation of it – but I was happily wrong about that. To the usual straightforward backstory, the documentary adds a series of amazing interviews with major figures in the scandal, including Spitzer himself, several aides, various members of the financial elite whom he attacked as attorney general of New York, and the call girl whom Spitzer preferred (though her “interview” is done off-camera and then voiced by an actress, interestingly).

Nobody in this movie comes off well. Spitzer, first and foremost, looks like a hard-driving bastard who was nonetheless genuinely concerned with curbing the excesses of the Manhattan bankers. The bankers present themselves as horribly entitled, deeply greedy plutocrats who were offended at Spitzer’s attacks, though not badly hurt. As the film points out, those bankers’ avarice nearly wrecked American capitalism just a few months after the scandal toppled Spitzer. The only glimmer of redemption comes near the end of the movie, when Spitzer simply and clearly admits that he was wrong to hire prostitutes, that he had betrayed literally everything he represented: probity, incorruptibility, public service, his family.

This admission comes only after the documentary draws some pretty clear lines of cause and effect between Spitzer’s attacks on financiers and the subsequent scandal. In seeking to weaken the financial class centered in Manhattan, Spitzer created many extremely powerful enemies, some of whom speak on camera about their desire to retaliate. In his brief tenure as governor of New York, Spitzer created more enemies, this time with politicians who quickly aligned themselves with the financiers to create a cabal of rich right-wingers with deep interests in finding a way to bring down Spitzer. It’s shameful and fitting that he gave them that opportunity by foolishly choosing, at the height of his power, to become Client 9.

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