When New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught in a scandal involving high-priced call girls in March 2008, the New York Post's tabloid exuberance expertly captured the public mood of prurient surprise with a front-page headline for the ages: "Ho No! Gov Nailed in Hooker Shock."
For Spitzer was not just any elected official caught patronizing $1,000-a-night prostitutes. As the state's attorney general, he had become known as "the sheriff of Wall Street" for his willingness to take on powerful and previously untouchable special interests in the financial world. His reputation for personal incorruptibility had led to a victory in the 2006 governor's race with an impressive 69% of the popular vote. His campaign slogan: "Bring Some Passion Back to Albany."
Now, two years after that scandal, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has expertly used his own set of skills to deliver a taut and compelling investigation of that scandal and what led to it. Made with the on-camera cooperation of Spitzer (though not his wife), it is a sad, disturbing and in some ways tragic tale that in its lurid combination of sex and politics, banal hypocrisy and bare-knuckles power, seems very much an American story of our times.
As such, it is a particularly good story for Gibney, an Oscar winner for "Taxi to the Dark Side" and responsible for such excellent docs as "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." Complex subject matter does not daunt Gibney, and his thick-with-information films are especially good at making the difficult comprehensible, at taking apart intricate scenarios and showing us exactly how they came to be.
Spitzer's story turns out to have more to it than one would think, to be a more complicated scenario than it looks to be at first. If it has tragic elements, it's hardly because an innocent was victimized. Though Spitzer was, in Gibney's words, "a force for good," he was far from being without sin. Not only did he regularly patronize hookers, but he also had personality traits that left him all but friendless in the face of the formidable enemies he'd made.
Adding to the complexities, Gibney makes a convincing case that the point of the federal investigation that revealed Spitzer's improprieties was not to punish wrongdoing — he was never charged with any crime — but to gather embarrassing information that could be leaked to the press and force a resignation. Which is exactly what happened.
To tell this intricate story, one that goes back and forth between the sleazy worlds of high-power politics and high-paid sex, Gibney uses conventional and unconventional methods.
In a classic documentary coup, for instance, he has gotten four of Spitzer's key enemies to talk on camera. Having them all, he's said, was "like watching a CEO version of 'Hollywood Squares.' "
But when it turned out that Ashley Dupre, the woman who shamelessly used her liaison with Spitzer to advance her own career, was only a one-night stand, Gibney found the woman who was the governor's regular escort and used her in a debatable way. Since "Angelina" refused to appear on camera, he hired actress Wrenn Schmidt to play her by performing her quoted remarks.
More than that, the first time we see Angelina, we are not told she is an actress. Though this technique is undoubtedly effective, especially because Schmidt does excellent work, its appropriateness in the documentary format remains an open question.
One of the interesting aspects of Spitzer's attacks on the moneyed classes is that he was born into them. His father, Bernard Spitzer, grew wealthy on real estate and was such a tough parent he foreclosed on his son in Monopoly, bringing on tears. Conscious of having gotten breaks in his life, Spitzer decided to go into politics in order to give back.
"My job as attorney general," he said at the time, "is to change the system so it will be honest."
In a series of high-profile investigations into problems that prefigured the economic meltdown, Spitzer attempted to do just that.
He made foes like AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg and billionaire Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone not just because he targeted the powerful, but also because of his personality and methods.
Rigid, self-righteous, aggressive, he was so known for his temper that a New York bumper sticker read, "Honk If You've Been Threatened by Eliot Spitzer."
That steamroller temperament did not serve Spitzer well as governor, an office where compromise and cooperation can be helpful. He ran afoul of a canny old pro named Joseph Bruno, a Republican who was majority leader of the New York Senate, and soon enough he'd made another powerful enemy.
While all this was going on, Spitzer was using the Emperor's Club VIP escort service, run day-to-day by a piece of work named Cecil Suwal, then 23, who has no qualms about telling all on camera. How all this came to the attention of the Bush administration Department of Justice, and why Spitzer was focused on when the Republican politicians implicated in the similar D.C. Madam case were not, are questions "Client 9" speculates about but cannot answer.
Spitzer, a stranger to introspection, can't come up with a coherent explanation for the actions that led to what he calls "my downfall." But he fully accepts responsibility for them. "I did what I did, shame on me," he says at one point, to which viewers will be tempted to add "and shame on those who greased the wheels of his undoing."