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Documenting the Eliot Spitzer scandal

Two documentaries examine the machine behind the former New York governor's fall from grace.

November 07, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

Before he became the co-host of a low-rated CNN talk show, Eliot Spitzer was best remembered as a late-night punch line, if he was remembered at all.

But what if the former New York governor was a victim? Or even a hero?

That's the provocative argument put forth by a pair of new films about Spitzer, who was prompted to resign in March 2008 because of a prostitution scandal. In "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, Oscar winner Alex Gibney portrays a man felled not by his own vice but by a Shakespearean power struggle with people vindictively allied against him. And in "Inside Job," Oscar nominee's Charles Ferguson's dissection of the financial crisis, the director deploys the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street as both an expert and the film's moral conscience.

In a year of nonfiction docu-entertainment such as "Catfish" and "Jackass 3D," the documentaries represent rare, serious attempts to reshape our understanding of important recent events.

"lt was very surprising to find out all these things about the story that were not what was advertised," Gibney, who won an Oscar for his Afghanistan torture documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side," said on a recent stop in Los Angeles. "It's like that scene at the end of the movie 'Murder on the Orient Express' where they're all plunging the knife into the body. That's what this was like. These people got together and did everything they could to try to take Spitzer out."

Spitzer has been creeping back into public life, first as a columnist for the online magazine Slate and, in the past month, somewhat awkwardly, as a co-host on a prime-time CNN show, "Parker Spitzer." In an election season that has been animated by an anti-establishment mentality, his narrative fits right in.

As New York state attorney general, Spitzer prosecuted cases ranging from computer-equipment price fixing to music-industry payola. But it was his targeting of corporate malfeasance that earned him his reputation as a dogged and at times arrogant crusader — and also earned him a wide swath of enemies. By bringing excessive-compensation charges against former New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard Grasso and leveling civil charges of securities fraud against then- AIG chairman Hank Greenberg, Spitzer foretold and fought against Wall Street corruption before it was fashionable.

The Democrat, who swept into the governor's office in a landslide in 2006, left Albany under a cloud of scandal; the image from his press conference, with his wife, Silda, standing behind him, remains one of the most indelible in contemporary political theater. But according to Gibney, Spitzer was undone at least in part by the powerful figures he took on as governor and attorney general.

Spitzer, who sat for several interviews with the director, shows a mixture of his customary self-confidence as well as contrition in the film. "What I did in our investigations of the companies obviously I believe was right," he said, but added, "My view is I brought myself down. And I will not try to blame others or excuse my behavior.... If [enemies] were involved in unearthing it, so be it. That isn't my concern right now."

While the filmmaker, who exposed power run amok with his "Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room," doesn't absolve Spitzer of his sins, he shows them in a larger context — one in which visiting a prostitute looks like a peccadillo compared to the vendetta plotted against him. Gibney fills his movie with juicy details involving Greenberg, former New York Senate leader and Spitzer adversary Joseph Bruno, political consultant Roger Stone and Ken Langone, a former director on the New York Stock Exchange board and a Grasso ally.

Piecing together Langone interviews, Gibney leaves the impression that the mogul — who is so undisguised in his hatred of Spitzer that he is seen saying that "we all have our own private hell; I hope [Spitzer's] private hell is hotter than anyone else's" — might have had a tail on the governor when the wrongdoing was uncovered. (Langone has denied any such charge.) Meanwhile, Gibney concludes that the federal investigation into Spitzer visiting the Emperors Club VIP escort service was a politically motivated inquest meant to "embarrass" Spitzer with the leaking of lurid details and was never intended to lead to actual prosecution (the head of the escort service wound up serving time, but Spitzer was never charged.) It was, essentially, a political assassination, Gibney argues, albeit one in which Spitzer supplied both the weapon and the ammunition.

Ferguson's film takes a broader view of the economy and thus offers more limited exposure to Spitzer. But the several scenes in which the governor appears shows him as a man intent on cleaning up Wall Street. At a Cannes screening this year, the initial titters when Spitzer first appeared on screen gave way to righteous approval.

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