Saturday, November 20, 2010

Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

"All I ask for is an unfair advantage.” Reputedly a favourite line of Hank Greenberg, the former Chair and CEO of AIG, it makes for an apposite tagline for a leader forced to resign by his own board as a result of investigations into financial impropiety. The Greenberg investigations were instigated by then New York Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, who made a habit of making enemies amongst the city's most powerful  corporate leaders during his uncompromising campaign to prosecute corporate misconduct. And as writer and director Alex Gibney argues in Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer it was the foes he created in his day job as much as the night time friends he sought among the high class escort world that ultimately brought him down.

Gibney, the oscar winning documentary maker of Taxi to the Dark Side, Casino Jack, and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, is no stranger to the twilight morality of big business, and the powerplays of American politics. In Client 9 he weaves the two together in a fascinating and surprisingly gripping account of Spitzer's downfall. It's played out like a battle of giants, Spitzer the so-called "Sheriff of Wall Street" fiercely defending the moral purpose of his achievements, and a cast of highly entertaining, and visibly bristling combatants like Greenberg who can hardly contain their pleasure at tough-guy Spitzer's remarkable demise ... and their own part in contributing to it.

There's no shortage of insight here about the ethics of business and politics, and especially in Spitzer's spectacular rise and fall, about the intersection of public virtue and private vice.  He gives a frank and compelling interview to camera, insightful and erudite on his public achievements and then stilted and seemingly at a loss to explain his private problems. The question at the heart of this is how could someone so vigorous in policing the law so knowingly engage in illegality. Spitzer himself doesn't offer too many answers. But one of his aides makes the case in terms of a balance sheet - on the one side cracking down on the financial misdemeanours that led to a worldwide financial crisis that cost billions and billions of dollars - and on the other side having sex a few times with a prostitute. In those terms, Spitzer is on the side of moral good. The good he did far outweighed the bad - at least that is how Gibney couches it in a balanced but ultimately sympathetic portrayal of someone that tends to divide opinions. But Spitzer also admits to hubris, albeit in rather ironically self-important terms. “The only metaphor I can think of" he says at the outset of the movie, "is Icarus. Those whom the gods would destroy, they make all powerful.”

It's not just Spitzer's brittle character though that gives Gibney's movie it's edge. It also features some wonderfully revealing portraits of his enemies and other players in the story. These include: Kenneth Langone, a billionaire American businessman and an outspoken critic of Spitzer; Roger Stone, the infamous lobbyist with a Richard Nixon tatoo on his back; Joseph Bruno, Spitzer’s chief political rival when he became governor of New York; “Angelina” his preferred escort; and audience favourite Cecil Suwal, the disarmingly ditzy CEO of Emperors Club VIP, the escort agency at the heart of the scandal. It's a feast of moral messiness, perhaps best summed up  by the giggling Suwal who admits to getting "confused" about the illegality of high end prostitition given the huge sums of money involved. Gibney doesn't give us any reason to believe that she was the only one.

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