October 11, 2010

On Borrowed Wings: From The Sheriff of Wall Street to 'Client 9'

Eliot Spitzer, a member of the pantheon of fallen, libidinally challenged political icons--John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Henry Hyde, Strom Thurmond, Wilbur Mills, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson--is the subject of a new documentary that explodes the myths surrounding his case. 

The biggest myth is that he and call girl Ashley Dupre were engaged in non-stop, horizontal bop. In fact, he only slept with her once. Recognizing a good career move when she saw one, Dupre stepped into the limelight when Spitzer's regular escort decided to duck the media storm after his carousing became public. "She [Dupre] was very clever,"  says Alex Gibney, the writer, director and producer of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. "She did nothing to disabuse anyone of that notion."

It's fitting that so many myths surround this story. Even Spitzer likens himself to Icarus, a mainstay of Greek mythology. For those of you who don't have your copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology nearby, Icarus ignored his father's warnings about the fragility of the wax-covered wings he strapped on in order to escape the confines of the labyrinth in which he and his father were imprisoned.  Icarus flew so high and close to the sun that his wings melted, and down he went, plummeting to his death. The takeaway from his aborted flight has been that arrogance, or hubris, will lead humans to crash and burn. 

 

 

From Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Eliot Spitzer's career is a model for this lesson. The "Luv Gov" resigned from office in April 2008 when The New York Times revealed that Governor Spitzer, who was seen as a candidate to be the first Jewish President, had developed a taste for illicit sexual encounters with prostitutes. A few months before his fall, he uttered this prophetic observation to a luncheon crowd at the New York State School Board Association: "Hubris is terminal."

"You can't make that stuff up," says Gibney, whose film lays out how Spitzer's drive to root out corruption on Wall Street and in New York's State Capital created enemies that coalesced to "take him out of Albany."

"I don't condone what he did," Gibney continues. Nor does Spitzer, who appears in the film to explain how his career-ending dalliances provided the ammunition his foes needed to bring him down.

We meet a colorful array of characters who'd been stung by Spitzer's relentless, hard-charging prosecutorial ways. We're reminded that he sued out-of-state coal-fired power plants for causing acid rain in New York and took on General Electric for dumping PCBs into the Hudson River. 

But it's his battles with Wall Street that may have sealed his fate. Spitzer pursued two analysts, Henry Blodget and Hank Grubman, who were accused of misleading the public about the value of investments they knew were, in Blodget's terms, "POS"--or, "pieces of shit."  Both financiers were banned from their profession for life-and were given multi-million-dollar severance packages. 

Spitzer took on the CEO of insurance giant AIG, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who'd engineered a scheme to artificially pump up the value of his company. Spitzer kicked over a hornets' nest when his gaze landed on one of the richest men in America, investor Ken Langone and his pal, Dick Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, whom Spitzer sued over a $187 million pay package.

"There were a lot of people who wanted him gone," Gibney explains. "He wanted systemic change." The press dubbed him "The Sheriff of Wall Street," but his declaration of "war" didn't earn him any supporters in Albany on either side of the aisle when he became governor. He took his attack dog approach to public service into the governor's office, where he tangled with the rough-and-tumble entrenched interests in the State house. Gibney interviews Senate leader Joe Bruno, who became Spitzer's main foe.

"I've been threatened by hoods and gangsters my whole life; if you think you're going to bother me, don't," Bruno, a former professional boxer, maintains in the film what he said to the governor. When Spitzer did get under his skin, Bruno met with Greenberg, and later hired political operative Roger Stone, a lobbyist known for his wild sexcapades as a swinger and for his inclination to dress up like James Bond. "Sometimes the stories are just too good," Gibney admits. "The glory of nonfiction is running across characters like this."

 

 

Political lobbyist/strategist Roger Stone and friend. From Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Spitzer came to town with the campaign promise to "Bring some passion back to Albany." His constituents would soon find out exactly what that meant. After the government got wind of Spitzer's encounters, the Department of Justice (DOJ) began to close in and his fear--"If we stumble, they will kick us in the nuts"--came true, according to Gibney.

The twists and turns of why the DOJ was involved, how they traced Spitzer's transactions, the identity of his frequent escort, the names of the cabal that had it in for him and how the Feds manipulated the press to break the story and the fact that he was never charged with any crime, are part of this riveting, feature-length documentary.

Greek mythology wasn't about redemption, but it's clear that Eliot Spitzer is attempting a comeback. He's taught college classes and now has a talk show on CNN. Will he be able to wax up those wings and set flight again? "I disagree with [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, who said there are no second acts in America," Gibney maintains. "This country loves second acts."

I suspect Spitzer has one, but what it is remains to be seen.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which is being released by Magnolia Pictures, opens November 5 in New York and November 12 in Los Angeles. The film is also available right now on major cable systems across the country, iTunes, Amazon, Xbox live, hotels, etc.

Michael Rose is a writer, producer and director of nonfiction programs; he also writes for The Huffington Post and other publications.