Client 9 at Cinema Fest

Back in Houston, filmmaker Alex Gibney hears from Skilling & Lay defenders while tackling Eliot Spitzer

Back in Houston, filmmaker Alex Gibney hears from Skilling & Lay defenders while tackling Eliot Spitzer

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With Alex Gibney back in Houston, he's hearing from those who want to debate Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay with him.
Gibney's new movie examines the fall of Eliot Spitzer.
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Sex. Money. Politics. Scandal. When it comes to containing an assortment of attention-grabbing elements, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is practically an embarrassment of riches.

This latest effort from Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is a scrupulously fair yet brutally frank portrait of its notorious subject, the New York governor — actually, make that the married New York governor — who was humiliated into resigning in March 2008 after being identified as a frequent customer of expensive escort services.

Before his 2006 landslide election — and way before his licentious peccadilloes inspired an especially memorable New York Post headline, “Ho No! Gov Nailed in Hooker Shock” — Spitzer established a formidable reputation as a crusading New York Attorney General, earning the nickname “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his aggressive prosecution of powerful figures in the financial world.

Client 9 suggests that some of those figures — and their even more powerful allies — may have played key roles in leaking the info that triggered Spitzer’s fall from grace. But Spitzer himself — now on the comeback trail as co-host of a new prime-time show on CNN — doesn’t avoid accepting chief responsibility for his own downfall.

“I did what I did,” he tells Gibney during one of several on-camera, blunt-spoken interviews. “And shame on me."

Cinema Arts Festival Houston will present Client 9 at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Edwards Greenway Palace Stadium. Gibney will be on hand to introduce his film, as will journalist Peter Elkin, co-author of the book that inspired Gibney’s Enron documentary, and author of a new book — Rough Justice — that also focuses on Spitzer.

We caught up with Gibney on Saturday afternoon, to place the ever-inquisitive filmmaker on the receiving end of a few questions. 

CultureMap: So when will we see you promoting your film as a guest on Parker/Spitzer?

Alex Gibney: For some reason, the executive producer of that show declined to have us. I don’t know why.

CM: I think that it would great synergy, for the show as well as the film.

AG: Apparently, CNN didn’t share your view.

CM: OK, we don’t get to see Spitzer’s favorite escort in your movie — you have an actress portraying her on screen — but you actually met her. Did you think she’d be worth $1,000 a pop?

AG: [Laughs] I don’t know. I didn’t engage her as a client, so I’ll never know.

CM: Did she at least look like she’d be worth $1,000 a pop.

AG: She is very pretty. But not in a way that would be stereotypically hookerish. No augmented breasts, that sort of thing. If you saw her walking down the street, you’d think, “Oh, there’s a pretty woman.” But you’d never think, “Oh, there goes an escort.”

CM: That’s just one of the ways your movie avoids the obvious. Have a lot of people told you they were surprised — and maybe disappointed — that Spitzer doesn’t appear more contrite? That he doesn’t do the sort of weepy thing you’d expect to see on Oprah?

AG: Many people have said that. Especially in reviews. And I’m a little bit surprised, to be honest. It’s like they think I haven’t done my job unless the subject breaks down in tears and collapses in some Oprah-like confession. That’s not Eliot Spitzer. I believe the film represents his character in a way that’s very true to him. And quite honest. This is a guy who doesn’t do introspection. Those are his own words.

CM: Do you think Spitzer co-operated with you — and with writer Peter Elkind — as part of some sort of image-buffing, personal rehabilitation process?

AG: I think he wants to go forward. I think he wants to get back in the game. So I’m sure there was some level of calculation on his part. As I’m sure there is for anybody who agrees to do what he did. At the same time, though, there was a certain amount of risk. Because he didn’t have any control over the final product.

His PR people would have preferred he limited his exposure, and talked to us only while they were around so they could control the message. To his credit, he chose not to do that.

CM: Of course, you were interviewing a guy with a reputation as a very tough prosecutor, someone who knows all the tricks of the trade when it comes to getting information out of people who might not want to give it. Knowing this, did you feel like you had to be at the top of your own game?

AG: Well, there’s one clear instance in the film where you can see his mood change. It’s maybe the worst moment for Spitzer in the film, where I’m asking him about the incident with John Whitehead.

CM: The Goldman Sachs executive who claims Spitzer threatened him during a phone conversation.

AG: And Spitzer says, “Well, I don’t think I really said anything that bad.” So I read him off-camera the text of what he said. Because we knew it from John Whitehead, we knew it from another person who was in the car with Spitzer. And he said, “I don’t think I said that.” So I read some more. And at that point, he gets rather testy. You can see his eyes narrow, and it’s clear that he’s unhappy. And he finally says, “It was a private conversation.”

And then he goes into the fact that at times, he unloads on people in order to make a point — and he finds it effective. Well, I found that a rather telling moment.

So, yeah, I did feel I had to be at the top of my game. But I have to tell you: Generally speaking, my interview technique is not confrontational. And it’s not designed to make me look good. It’s designed to elicit things from the subject. And to some extent, I’ll ask probing questions. And I will keep asking questions. It’s like, you can see that Eliot would have preferred that I just move on when I was asking questions about why he did what he did in terms of the scandal. And I kept, in my own polite way, moving forward.

The trick — well, not the trick, but the challenge at the end of the day is to get everything back in the editing room, and then to decide who is telling the truth, and when, and to structure the film accordingly. But you’re always concerned about whether you’re being manipulated, and whether they’re just telling you only the things that they want you to hear. There are a lot of people in the film who do that. Not just Spitzer.

CM: What does Eliot Spitzer see when he looks in the mirror?

AG: I think he sees now a flawed man who’s trying to do good.

CM: You say he sees that “now.” He didn’t see that back when he was a crusading attorney general, or governor of New York?

AG: No. I think he may have looked at himself a little less critically before.

CM: A final question. You’ve returned to scene of the crime, so to speak, years after directing Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. While you’ve been here for the Cinema Arts Festival, have you run into anyone who thought you were too hard on that nice man Ken Lay?

AG: Actually, there were a number of people I met at a party last night who felt I was too hard on that nice man Jeff Skilling as well as that nice man Ken Lay.

CM: And of course, you responded — politely.

AG: Yes, I did respond politely. I said I didn’t think I was too tough on them. And that a lot of people wished I would have been tougher. I felt I gave them, shall we say, the benefit of the doubt. And they cooked their own geese.

I must say: One thing that struck me about Eliot Spitzer is, he took responsibility for what he did. Which is something that Lay and Skilling never did. In their minds, they were the ones who became victims. Not the people who had lost all their money.


Watch the trailer for Client 9: