His downfall plays like a Greek tragedy, a flawed hero laid low by hubris. It has inspired “Saturday Night Live” skits, the 18th-season finale of “Law & Order” and the hit CBS drama “The Good Wife.”
Now the story of the former New York governor brought down by his ties to a high-priced prostitution ring is revisited in Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.”
Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian, respected the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street — who, as New York’s attorney general, investigated high-profile financial institutions such as Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs — for earning a reputation for exposing white-collar crime.
Yet Gibney, 57, says “Client 9” could be seen as sympathetic to its embattled subject without avoiding criticism of his mistakes.
“I think he was trying to do good,” Gibney says of Spitzer. “I can understand if people look past his record when judging him. But his record was strong.
“The problem for Eliot was he had lofty ideas about what politics should be — enacting legislation, doing the right thing. Well, sometimes it comes down to who you know, and Eliot didn’t have any friends in either party. When Eliot fell, there was nobody standing behind him.”
In “Client 9,” Gibney details not only Spitzer’s combative style and all-too-public personal failings, but also his rapid rise to the top of New York’s Democratic Party. (Some had him pegged as “the first Jewish president” before his abrupt resignation March 17, 2008 — a week after The New York Times revealed his patronage of the Emperors Club VIP escort agency.)
For every pundit who describes Spitzer’s war on Wall Street corruption as visionary, there are bitter power brokers such as New York Stock Exchange ex-Chairman Richard Grasso who revel in his humiliation.
“Did I think Spitzer had been the victim of a political hit? The idea crossed my mind,” says Gibney, who persuaded Grasso and former AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg, along with Spitzer’s call girl of choice, to participate in “Client 9.”
“It was very interesting that the scandal broke as Wall Street was on the brink of collapse. The financial system was falling apart, yet his story dominated the headlines. And the FBI investigation into his activities was unprecedented. Still, it’s hard to reckon with such a smart man making that kind of mistake, at the height of his power. That’s the great mystery of the human mind.”
IF YOU GO
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
With Eliot Spitzer
Directed by Alex Gibney
Running time 1 hour 57 minutes