The realization halfway through Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, the new documentary about the former New York governor, is that it all just doesn’t add up. Why would the FBI spend so much time and so many resources on investigating a single john of a high-class prostitution service? Why would they release extensive and vivid details on this one client and not the others? Were they feeding the press? Why would federal investigators take a totally unprecedented direction when interpreting an archaic law dealing with the transfer of sex workers over state lines, and decide to prosecute a client, instead of merely the organizers of the ring?
These are the questions friends and supporters of the shamed and ousted New York governor and former New York attorney general found themselves asking in the wake of the sex scandal that forced Spitzer to resign his office and relinquish his promising political career, a career which some had believed was on a road to Pennsylvania Avenue. In the documentary, which includes long and probing interviews with the key players — from Spitzer and former AIG chief Hank Greenberg to the madams, pimps, and prostitutes of various high-end escort services — filmmaker Alex Gibney pieces together the story of a political scandal that peeks behind the curtain of the power structures of Wall Street and paints the portrait of a fascinating and conflicted man.
Spitzer was the pit bull lawyer who took on Wall Street when no one else would, bolstered by a rigid ethical backbone and a vicious aggressiveness. He became a populist icon before the housing bubble broke, the rogue advocate for the common man who would regulate Wall Street when no one else would. This, obviously, didn’t win him friends in the corridors of power. It didn’t help that Spitzer’s style was schizophrenic. In one moment he was a stoic crusader for ethics in politics and finance. The next minute he was barking death threats through the phone at heads of the world’s largest corporations, threatening to bring them all down.
With indefatigable persistence, Spitzer found success as attorney general, exposing multiple corporate scandals. But the enemies he made had deep memories. As it is portrayed in Client 9, these bank barons and industry emperors conspired to take down Spitzer. Interviewed in the film, Spitzer admits his suspicion of how his downfall was constructed. But this contradictory character also admits his own hubris-fueled ambition contributed to the fall — both his vices and his over-extended aggression. The story seems rooted in Greek literature, something that isn’t lost on the former governor, who refers to himself at one point in the film as Icarus.
Client 9’s telling of Spitzer’s story is methodical, concurrently delving into the workings of Wall Street and high-end prostitution. The interviews with the various working girls prove to be some of the movie’s most interesting moments, not because they are particularly salacious, but because these women, mostly pulled from respectable ranks of working young professionals, possess unique insight into the psychology of their clients.
Other interview highlights include Joe Bruno, a former boxer and Republican New York state senator who went head-to-head with the governor while in office and whose connections can be traced to powerful corners of Wall Street. At the end of the film, after Bruno has gloated about contributing to the fall of Sptizer, we watch Bruno work a boxing bag in his barn while words on the screen tell us that the politician was eventually convicted of corruption charges. It’s a subplot seemingly pulled from The Godfather, and one of many stories that allow Client 9 to leave you with a lingering sense of the sticky, sleazy insider world that tugs at the strings of power.