REVIEW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

16 06 2011

With the chaotic Anthony Weiner scandal finally ending in his resignation (but hopefully not putting those hilarious sexual puns to rest), it seems like as good a time as ever to discuss “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” Alex Gibney’s fascinating documentary of another New York politician driven out of office by the revelation of personal vice.  The prolific documentarian delivers an enthralling chronicle of Spitzer’s career, from his heights as Attorney General to the humiliating admission that he had been involved in a prostitution ring.  Gibney provides a multilateral view of it all, leaving no stone unturned and showing how Spitzer was digging his own grave while constructing his doomed political colossus.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with Spitzer from any context other than his CNN show or the embarrassing final press conferences with his wife standing steadfastly behind him, Gibney’s portrait brings everyone up to speed with his career.  Beginning from his tenure as Attorney General of the state of New York, Spitzer was deeply committed to delivering justice.  Given the state, his jurisdiction included Wall Street, and anyone who rattles the cages there is bound to piss off some powerful people.  While his dynamic regulation earned him praise from the press, with some hailing him as “the future first Jewish president,” there were men behind the scenes looking for ways to bring about his demise.

Ultimately, they didn’t have to resort to Mafia techniques to see the realization of their dream; Spitzer handed it to them on a silver platter.  Behind the successful, married, and unflappable façade he constructed was a man seeking for something more.  Unfortunately, he found that something in a high-priced prostitute known as Ashley Dupre.  It only took a little bit of dirt searching to find this secret, and as they say, the rest is history.

Gibney gets interviews from all the high-profile figures in the saga, from the pissed-off powerbrokers to the pragmatic prostitutes.  But unlike most documentaries, “Client 9” boasts having first person commentary from the two main characters in the story – Spitzer himself and Ashley Dupre, played by an actress to protect herself.  The hired hand does a great job of bringing her story to life, but it’s Spitzer that draws us in and never lets us go.  We can see how tough it is for him to admit to his mistakes and relive the painful events that brought down his life.

Watching Spitzer’s admissions with such raw humanity makes “Client 9” essential viewing in spite of Gibney’s inconsistencies.  The nearly two hour movie flip-flops between various tones, including a History Channel special, a tale of political intrigue reminiscent of the fifth season of “24,” a thriller, and an exposé of the prostitution industry.  But in spite of its shortcomings, Gibney’s film draws some important conclusions about what leads men in power to slip up, and Anthony Weiner is just further proof that what he has to say is still extremely relevant.  B / 

Oscar Moment: “Inside Job”

8 10 2010

There are many categories on my Oscar ballot that I always call a toss-up, such as the short films.  However, one such category regrettably includes the Best Documentary Feature, which I have, in the past, had little interest in.  These movies tackle important current events or shine new perspectives on old ones, and as I’ve become more educated, these have become more intriguing to me.

So in 2010, I’ve vowed to take an active interest in handicapping the Best Documentary Feature race, and it starts today with this Oscar Moment.  First on tap is Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” the documentary on the 2008 financial collapse that opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

The documentary first made a blip on my radar when it premiered at Cannes back in May.  There it was the best reviewed movie of the festival, receiving nothing but the highest of praise from all angles.  According to IndieWIRE, “Inside Job” was the only movie at Cannes to score an A average.  Sony Pictures Classics picked it up there in France and played it at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals last month and the New York Film Festival last week.

The movie makes the argument that Wall Street has been heading for collapse ever since the 1980s when institutions were allowed to trade on their own behalf.  The idea that banks and firms are betting against the customers is frightening, and the marketing campaign behind the movie seeks to make it look like an “economic horror movie.”  It’s an interesting notion, and given some of the movie’s revelations, Sony Pictures Classics may be on to something.

The movie is more than just Ferguson’s hypotheses based on CNBC reports; he managed to get some high-profile figures on camera.  While there’s no Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke, he did manage to land former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and a high-end Wall Street prostitute.  These interviews make for an interesting aspect, according to Kris Tapley of In Contention:

With the brave subjects at apparent fault who somehow thought it was a good idea to go before Ferguson’s lens, the filmmaker takes on the role of interrogator, holding fast as they squirm and never allowing retreat (to the point that one subject, clearly flustered, asks that the camera be turned off for a moment). The thickness of the material and the dizzying nature of the underhanded tactics held up for examination pretty much becomes the point as the film moves on.

The movie is narrated by all-American boy Matt Damon, but it seems to me like Ferguson is the big character in the movie.  He has a stance, and he’s not afraid to put himself out there to make it known.  This isn’t just the facts; there is a slant.  The politics of “Inside Job” line up nicely with Academy politics, so the movie’s opinion certainly won’t work against it.

The real question is if “Inside Job” will align with the Academy’s flavor of the month in the documentary category.  Last year’s winner, “The Cove,” dealt with a very strong ethical cause that had not been anywhere in the news.  Two years ago, “Man on Wire” told the story of Philipe Petit’s 1973 walk between the World Trade Center towers.  Three years ago, Ferguson’s own Iraq documentary “No End in Sight” lost to “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which took a look at American policy on torture in Iraq.  Four years ago, winner “An Inconvenient Truth” made global warming an issue.  Five years ago, “March of the Penguin” charmed everyone in America.

Political hot-button issues may have a place on Fox News and CNN, but the Academy doesn’t always welcome them as we can see by their track record over the last five years.  With the economy being all over the news, do we need it again at the Oscars?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Documentary Feature