2010, Movies

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010, Alex Gibney)

This is a fascinating documentary about former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal and New York State and American political corruption in general. I must admit I didn’t pay much attention to the scandal at the time – I don’t care much about American gubernatorial politics – and assumed he’d done things a lot worse than use an escort agency.

This film explores our (and, specifically, America’s) peculiar obsession with sexual indiscretion as something that is supposedly among the worst things you can do. The scandal was covered like a major event at the time, and yet, it’s pretty minor all things considered. It’s amazing how much we care about sex scandals and how little we care about actual political corruption. And this film most succeeds at illuminating that strange attitude and actual real world problem. It also sheds light on the hypocrisy of how some American politicians with sex scandals are treated compared to others. (For years afterwards it seems Spitzer was a favourite target of conservatives in the US, despite no longer being a politician.)

What’s most interesting to me here is the idea that Spitzer was targeted by enemies on Wall Street, by conservative opponents and operatives, and by the then-Republican-led Justice Department because he was a particularly successful and threatening Democratic Governor. (It’s also telling that one of the two escorts who Spitzer had sex with – the one who would talk to the media – tried to launch a career in conservative media afterwards.)

Yes, Spitzer did indeed cheat on his wife and commit a crime but the film makes compelling points about both the federal investigation and leaks to the media that raise concerns about hypocrisy at minimum. It seems safe to say that very few people liked Spitzer and that had a lot to do with why the Justice Department would care about going after a politician for cheating on his wife.

Gibney tries his hardest to pretend he has not picked sides – including many interviews with Spitzer’s opponents – but it’s pretty clear he thinks Spitzer was wronger. He makes a pretty compelling, if biased, case. (After all, what he did is an actual crime, even if it isn’t prosecuted very often.) I am definitely somebody who doesn’t care about politicians’ sex lives and I think prostitution should be legal, so he’s preaching to the choir with me. I’m not sure he’s going to convert anyone who feels otherwise, though.

My other big quibble with the film is its style – it’s episodic for a while, then it’s not, then it is again. There’s at least one brief re-enactment that feels completely out of left field. And, as with basically any Gibney film, sometimes his narration feels too personal for my liking.

But, on the whole, this is a movie you should watch. It tells a fairly complete version of the story, one that you wouldn’t have gotten if you paid as little attention as I did. And it raises important questions about the degree to which we care about the moral misdeeds of politicians in their marriages over and above the ethical, moral and criminal misdeeds of politicians and the rich who are not caught sleeping around. (“Corruption and fraud are fine as along as you don’t cheat on your wife.”)


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