Friday, November 05, 2010

The Year’s Silliest Documentary: Client 9

Remember the Reese’s Pieces in E.T.? That product placement pales in comparison to Alex Gibney’s new ostensive documentary about New York State’s (still) disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer. Though purporting to explain the politician’s meteoric rise and fall, it degenerates into an infomercial for the merry prankster political services of gadfly consultant Roger Stone. Yet, despite the steady parade of rumor and innuendo, Gibney fails to make a convincing case Stone is worth the money in Client 9 (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Client is essentially two films. The first is an entertainingly diverting look into the world of Manhattan’s high-priced prostitution rings that could easily run on the E! network. The other is a massive PR campaign of behalf of Spitzer’s battered reputation. Gibney sees no evil in Spitzer’s record, deliberately ignoring the scores of the cases he brought that were unceremoniously thrown out of court and his dismal won-loss record. In truth, Spitzer was usually not looking to win cases on their merits, preferring to strong-arm his targets into financial settlements. (For a while, I worked with someone who had been laid-off as a result of one such settlement, but never in any close capacity.) One thing Gibney and Spitzer’s detractors could probably agree on though, was the politician’s ambition. The White House was thought to be his next step, which makes the recklessness of his behavior so inexplicably shocking.

Gibney does a legitimate public service by explaining tabloid cover-girl Ashley Dupré was only tangentially involved in Spitzer’s paid serial philandering, at most. Will she please go away now? However, Gibney’s decision to re-enact his interviews with Spitzer’s regular prostitute are is somewhat debatable, giving viewers nothing to judge her personal credibility (such as tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language). Yet, his partisanship creates far greater blind-spots.

To his credit, Spitzer accepts full responsibility for his downfall, but not Gibney. The filmmaker prefers to blame Roger Stone, a maverick New York based political operative (and a swinger Gibney hastens to add). Supposedly, Stone sent a letter to the FBI naming Spitzer as a client of the now notorious Emperor’s Club. The Feds say they never got it, but upon this slender reed, Gibney builds conspiratorial castles in the air. Evidently, Gibney believes U.S. Attorneys should ignore evidence sitting governors are involved in illegal prostitution rings, out of professional courtesy one supposes. Yet, like most johns, Spitzer was never ultimately charged, just eased out of office. Indeed, the whole case started as a money laundering investigation, and surely the government should be pursuing financial irregularities, right?

Eventually, Gibney just gets wild with the accusations, even going as far as to claim the New York Post deliberately timed promotions of Dupré’s column to coincide with Spitzer’s post-scandal appearances on CNN. (Okay, evidence please.) If even remotely true, they were probably doing CNN a favor, considering the reviews of the Parker Spitzer show. (“Vapid” raves Time Magazine. “Wretchedly unwatchable” echoes The Guardian, while The New York Times hails its “ickiness factor.”)

Gibney offers absolutely no substantiation anyone else had a hand in doing in Spitzer besides the disgraced pol himself. None. Again, Spitzer deserves limited acknowledgement for owning up to this forthrightly, which makes the rest of the movie such a weird exercise in scandal mongering. While Client is certainly watchable thanks to its voyeuristic look into the naughty world of high-end prostitution, it is the sort of unsourced, hearsay-ridden, overly-speculative, partisan-driven film that gives documentaries a bad name. For those in Gibney’s amen corner who do not worry about stuff like facts and logic, it opens today (11/5) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.