(Note: This article first appeared here two weeks ago, re-posted today with official opening of the film.) The range of Alex Gibney’s documentary films over the past two decades is impressive. Subjects have included Hunter Thompson, al-Qaeda, Jimi Hendrix and torture in Iraq, the latter earning him an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side. Next up for him: Lance Armstrong and Ken Kesey. Yet, in his latest film, arriving in theaters on November 5, he has returned again to the shady world of business and politics.
Gibney got his first Oscar nomination for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Arriving earlier this year was his film about Jack Abramoff, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Now on tap, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
While the first part of its title suggests that it focuses on chasing call girls, the new film actually spends more time on Spitzer’s days as “Sheriff of Wall Street,” the big money enemies he made—and how they may have brought him down. Actually, the film could have been titled “The United States of Money, Part II.”
Gibney’s background and early films (beyond The Pacific Century) didn’t seem to promise repeated probings of finance and politics, so in an interview yesterday I asked him how that happened.
“I’ve always had interest in power and the abuse of power,” he replied. “Power in this most recent era tends to be about corporate power and how money, often coming from the corporate sector, influences our political sector. We need to study the ‘political economy.’
"Economics is not just about numbers but about human survival, the most basic stuff, who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. It becomes very personal—it’s really about people.
“We’re taught that markets are transparent and efficient and it turns out they aren’t and they are manipulated by people in power. We shouldn’t be surprised—that ‘s what capitalism is about. So this is about people trying to kill each other—in a metaphorical way—and amassing that kind of power.”
This naturally drew him to the Spitzer story, which he describes as “about human beings and how they act.”
He points out that “Client 9” in the title has a dual meaning. Yes, it’s the “john” name given to Spitzer in the federal affidavit before he was publically named—but the way Client 9 was described at unusual length in that report, practically with a flashing red light or Drudge siren, suggests to Gibney that this was an “improper investigation to embarrass a public official.”
That’s a stronger condemnation than you find in the film—written, directed and narrated by Gibney—which lays out evidence, some of it new, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. Certainly you may come to believe that the US attorney who brought the case, a Republican named Michael Garcia, may have been all too happy to bring down a Democrat with a future on the national stage. (Garcia refused Gibney’s interview request.)
“In the film I try to go about as far as I could or should with the evidence at hand,” Gibney explains. “I don’t have an email to Garcia asking him to go after Spitzer hard. But it does strike me that the way the investigation was conducted was improper and was really not about bringing [the owners of the call girl operation] to justice.