Relying on a bevy of circumstantial evidence and without proving much in the way of anything, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer nonetheless homes in on a provocative and highly plausible thesis: that the investigation into the prostitution scandal that brought down former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer was a political hit job carried out at the behest of powerful Republican interests. At the very least, Alex Gibney’s doc shows up the Bush-era Justice Department as an institution with seriously misguided priorities. While the DOJ declined to go after the Wall Street criminals that Spitzer made his name prosecuting as state attorney general, they wasted countless taxpayer dollars launching an investigation into a high-class prostitution ring, something not generally taken as the purview of the national government. Of course, there’s no denying that Spitzer betrayed his trust and broke the law, but in the grand scheme of things, dallying with well-compensated hookers is a relatively harmless crime compared to the fraud perpetrated by men like ex-AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, whose case former U.S. attorney Michael J. Garcia dropped, only to later turn his investigative attention on the man who had built that very lawsuit, Spitzer himself.
Of course, the former governor was never charged with any crime (johns almost never are in such cases), but the news of Spitzer’s involvement was somehow leaked to the press and given the public obsession with the private lives of its politicians and Spitzer’s reputation as an “ethical” leader who had previously prosecuted prostitution rings, the story became the subject of sensationalist headlines in the daily tabloids and lead to inevitable calls of resignation. If there’s one thing the public loves more than the downfall of a powerful figure, it’s when that downfall is charged with a sense of comeuppance, an arrogant, unbending man brought down not only by his own hubris, but his hypocrisy as well. Still, as Gibney shows, there’s more than one kind of hypocrisy. Interviewing Wall Street creep and former Spitzer target Kenneth Langone, the director finds the businessman consumed with hatred for the ex-gov, waxing moral about that man’s activity while casually dismissing his own crimes. Similarly, Gibney cites the famous “D.C. Madam” case in which current Louisiana senator David Vitter was revealed as a client of an indicted prostitution ring, but was allowed to retain his congressional post, a consequence, the director speculates, of his conservative politics.
Still, as a film, Client 9 is not without its own hypocrisies—or, to put it charitably, inconsistencies of approach. Gibney rightly decries the public obsession with political figures’ sex lives and the “hitmen” who make millions digging up this form of dirt. Although he errs in equating, for example, John Edwards’s infidelities with Spitzer’s illegal actions, the director seems to understand the importance of distinguishing between a politician’s official policy and his personal actions, even if the two seem to be contradictory. And yet the film can’t help but indulge in a certain fascination with the personal, lurid details that made the Spitzer case so popular with the public.
There’s no getting around it: Client 9 is a slick piece of work, full of turgid proclamations (“Eliot Spitzer had taken the first step into his double life”), unnecessary switches in camera angles during interviews, and cutaways to symbolic images (get it, Wall Streeters are sharks!). And as long as Gibney sticks to the political (tracing Spitzer’s heroic activity as attorney general, detailing the powerful enemies he made both in Manhattan and Albany, and charting the machinations involved in bringing him down), this aesthetic puffery proves only a mild distraction. But when the film inquires into the more sensationalist aspects of Spitzer’s case (speculating on whether or not he wore socks while fucking, recreating an interview with his favorite prostitute about what his bedroom behavior was like), then the slick touches combine with the lurid subject matter to give the film the greasy feel of a New York Post cover story. Interviewing Spitzer himself, Gibney mostly avoids an officious inquiry into the personal, but when he asks the former governor what he learned about his wife’s character during this experience, the question feels like an unfair intrusion, a groping after the type of access to a public figure’s emotional life that the American populace has come to take for granted. Considering that Client 9 is dedicated to exploring the consequences of just that kind of access, it’s unfortunate that Gibney can’t bring himself to keep a more prudent distance from those very boundaries whose obliteration he aims to critique.