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MOVIE REVIEW

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Documentary recasts the Spitzer episode

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 12, 2010

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It’s unclear whether the timing of “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer’’ is good or bad for Spitzer. He’s just started a new he-said-she-said talk show on the increasingly out-of-it CNN. Having this movie in the news dredging up the recent past — the scandal that revealed that Spitzer, the then-governor of New York, was paying for prostitutes — resumes a distraction from what’s really important: He needs a better agent. Still, documentarian Alex Gibney is eager to recast him in a bygone heroic light. “Client 9’’ isn’t an exoneration as much as it is a clarification — a botched one, but still. If Spitzer wants to be seen as remorseful, I suppose this is an ideal opportunity. His contrition is evident. He looks tight with shame. But I don’t know that Spitzer sees this movie as an opportunity to step back and look inward, since he appears to refuse to.

Having hit the brick wall of his ostensible subject’s natural humorlessness, Gibney didn’t have much choice but to put Spitzer at the center of a larger sort of national tragedy. But “Client 9’’ is high farrago. The movie’s central idea is that the airing of the governor’s indiscretions was part of what Hillary Clinton notoriously called a vast, right-wing conspiracy. Gibney argues, as others before him have, that Spitzer had so many enemies in state government and on Wall Street that, if he had secrets, it was only a matter of time until they pooled their resources and ferreted them out. It’s the very tactic that Charles Ferguson’s current financial-crisis documentary, “Inside Job,’’ advocates using to get corrupt politicians and CEOs to testify: broadcast their dirty laundry. Spitzer contributes a lot of insight to Ferguson’s documentary but, on camera, clams up on that issue.

It takes Gibney almost two hours to build his own argument regarding the airing of Spitzer’s laundry, and, having watched it twice, that length is inexplicable. Gibney has filled the movie with anyone who would talk to him — many of them are crucial to the case the movie is making. His executive foes, like the business titans Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone, both of whom are positively radioactive with schadenfreude, explain how Spitzer overstepped his bounds. The dapper Republican consultant and loony Nixon obsessive Roger Stone may have been the chief orchestrator of the leaks that made public Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution ring. He’s mostly just radioactively tan.

As the movie advances its argument — complete with aggrieved former staffers and loyal defenders — that Spitzer was making scarily efficacious headway in reforming Wall Street, Gibney takes detours into the escort company Spitzer used. These passages do provide rather vivid insight into the people who run these services. But it’s like those connector flights that, to get from Boston to Philadelphia, make you fly to Orlando first.

Gibney must be proud of the prostitute material since he refers to it whenever he can, even when it’s gratuitous. He interviews CeCe Suwal, the very young, very charismatic CEO of the company Spitzer favored. As one escort stares at an open wardrobe in search of an outfit, Gibney plays “Sex 4 Suga’’ and “Love for Sale.’’ (All that the music cues and chapter titles leave to imagination is the chance to wonder what Gibney was thinking.)

He uses lots of photographs and found video of Ashley Dupré, the woman who became momentarily famous for being Spitzer’s preferred escort. But, apparently, Dupré wasn’t his favorite after all. He spent a lot of time with someone whose nom de Spitzer was Angelina. Gibney tells us Angelina spoke to him but didn’t want him to film her or feature her voice in the movie. So, in the film’s biggest mistake, the director hires an actress to perform the transcript of their conversation. She’s terrible — or the sudden cutaways to the information she presents are terrible. Whenever she shows up, you’re forced to think about a different set of facts that can be fatal to nonfiction: Who else is acting?

Gibney seems to be retreating from the finesse that made “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’’ such a withering documentary. He won an Oscar for his military-torture documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side,’’ and I think a certain sense of self-importance has heavied his hand. Out of desperation, laziness, or creative fatigue (Gibney worked simultaneously on “Client 9’’ and “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,’’ his equally overstuffed Jack Abramoff documentary from the spring), the movie produces a shot of a shark when someone mentions a shark and a shot of a Spitzer adversary (the embattled former state senator Joseph L. Bruno) driving a piece of construction equipment when someone mentions a steamroller. One micro-tangent wonders about how Silda Wall Spitzer could’ve stood beside her husband during his resignation press conference. That was the burning question at the time: Not “How could he?’’ but “How could she?’’ To that end, with minutes to go, the performance artist and Silda impersonator Karen Finley — Karen Finley! — turns up to speculate. Otherwise, Mrs. Spitzer is the ghost that haunts the movie.

Gibney has too much information, too much material, and too many people to shape a mystery or a drama or even a farce out of it all. His movie has elements of all three without ever sustaining one. At the center of the mess is Spitzer, who despite the fact that he has no one to blame but himself for his disgrace, does seem both more singled out than every other philandering politician and more harshly demoted. The most conspiratorial explanation for that might also be the most depressing: He was far too good at his former job.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER

Written and directed by:

Alex Gibney

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R (nudity, language,

and sexual material, including comic video footage

of call girls)

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