CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER (2010, directed by Alex Gibney, 117 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The last decade has seen art houses flooded with newsy documentaries, presenting the kind of big issue investigative reporting that used to find a home on ABC’s 20/20 or Dateline NBC. Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s been at the forefront of this cycle, with the theatrical releases Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, his examination of military Torture, Taxi to the Dark Side, and this year’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, profiling imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Director Gibney the son of journalist Frank Gibney, has become quite a journalist of his own, but more importantly he has developed into a thoughtful and entertainingly cinematic storyteller. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer carries a certain weight because it is relevant news, laid out in a narrative that went unexamined when the story was running its course through 2006 – 2008. But Gibney’s ability to get the main characters in the room to reveal their very human selves unearths a perceptive drama that should age better than yesterday’s newspaper.
Eliot Spitzer first came made the news in the late 80’s when he was part of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, then charged with investigating the Gambino organized crime family. He became New York State’s Attorney General in 1998, where he started tackling his job in the way that few attorney generals do: by attacking white collar crime at the very top. As Attorney General he took on price-fixing, predatory lending practices and even went after Richard Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, for taking compensation worth 140 million dollars. His popularity with the public led to his election as Governor of New York in 2006, but a mix of arrogance and his way of collecting enemies led to a prostitution scandal that caused his downfall and resignation in 2008.
Gibney does an admirable job of concisely explaining the collapse of A.I.G. and how it led to our financial breakdown, but he also has the details of Spitzer’s brothel-hopping to give the film a salacious punch. Gibney was able to get Spitzer’s cooperation for this, and while you would think it was an opportunity for career rehabilitation, having his seedy behavior analyzed on the big screen, interspersed with comments from braggadocios pimps and ambitious young madams, makes for a remarkable journey back into the mud. Spitzer comes off as honestly sheepish for his behavior and takes his lumps without excuses. Gibney also introduces one of his regular “dates” and pretty young woman who discusses their affairs in a business-like manner. After beginning to collect her testimony, Gibney pulls back the curtain to reveal that she isn’t the witness she seems, but instead an actress hired to bring the escort’s testimony to life.
A trick? Perhaps; but it does draw attention to the fact that everyone here is giving a performance, some more successful than others. The rogues gallery lining up against Spitzer include powerful enemies who may believe they are airing legitimate aggrievements but judging their testimony purely as performance, their bodies tell more than their words. Former head of New York Stock Exchange, Kenneth Langone gives off a Lugosi-esque scent of villainy and deceit. At one point when Gibney starts asking him the hard questions he repositions his fluttering hands approximately 25 times in twenty seconds. It’s easy to guess what a jury would think of such a witness. He, like Richard Grasso, is also full of ridiculous tough guy bluster, coming off like a decrepit Freddie Blassie, saying things like, “If you’re going to put a stake in my heart, make sure it is steel because wood will break!” GOP dirty tricks operative Roger Stone is involved as well, but you know you can trust his word because he’s got a picture of Richard Nixon’s head tattooed on his back. Langone, Grasso and Stone are so unashamed in their joy at spitting venom (Langone says he hates Spitzer most because he made him break the teachings of his religious faith by being unforgivable), you’re left with the sinking feeling that they’ve become as rich as sultans because they’re among the most venal and unscrupulous citizens in the country.
Client 9 doesn’t try to lead you to believe it knows more than it does but Gibney does present a pretty convincing case that this trio of bloodsuckers were instrumental in taking Spitzer down, at a time when the Bush administration was known to be leaning on attorney generals nationwide. The specifics may be the stuff of which news is made but the story itself is a engrossing portrait of how things roll on the dirtiest side of big time politics.
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If the tenets of honest journalism strengthen Client 9, it is their absence that makes the global warming documentary Cool It! smell funny. Based on the book by Danish author Bjorn Lomberg, the film purports to position itself as a corrective to the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Opining that the threat of global warming is real but overblown, Lomberg’s film disputes the claims of the scientific community and offers what he describes as a more practical way to address the problem.
Mimicking one of the more problematic aspects of An Inconvenient Truth, Cool It first tries to win our love for its messenger. Lomberg, presents himself as a Galileo-type figure, demonized by the Danish scientific world for being a maverick (if not for a few pesky inaccuracies). In his mind, he’s actually he’s more of a free-thinking Bono-like humanitarian (director Ondi Timoner of Dig! throws in a lot of faux-U2 scoring), which we know by the plethora of footage showing him talking to African children. He’s even seen carrying water for them, a good way to show off his ever-exposed bulging biceps. Later, he uses the kids as props to show that the Third World is determined to get more Western-style amenities.
And sure, we might believe the science of this non-scientist, but is he good to his mother? As a matter-of-fact he is, as we see him go on a shopping trip with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mum, who describes her boy as “lovely.” The whole thing begins to resemble a campaign commercial, although we’re uncomfortably unsure of what position for which Lomberg might actually be running
His philosophy ultimately coalesces around that brand of short-sighted Libertarianism that seems to get everything just about half right. Yes, the cap and trade system seems ineffective, yes, the alarming scenarios may be paralyzing real action, but could the problems of global warming be corrected by a series of smaller steps, like painting our roof tops white? Lomberg is enthusiastic about the possibility, just as he’s excited by the claims of a number of invention-hawking scientists, one of who claims he can cool the planet in an afternoon if he could just get the government funding he needs. Once the film is over, the niggling concern is that Lomberg’s prognosis proposes that we can fix this problem without confronting the energy industry, our energy use or the entrenched political system.In the end, Cool It’‘s propagandist message hinges on the hope that skepticism can be trumped by the emotionally attractive lure of a fantasy solution.