New York’s masters of the universe log some time in the documentary hotseat of Toronto's 2010 program.
10 Sep 2010 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 10:30 AM

TORONTO: In the spirit, perhaps, of the world of fact fudging that the film examines, the powers that be at the Toronto International Film Festival have billed Oscar-winner Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (pictured) as a “world premiere,” despite its hush-hush unveiling at New York's Tribeca Film Festival earlier this spring. Though it screened there with the caveat that it was unfinished, viewers — who of course already know how the story ends — got a sense of how it would be told: with a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward its subject.

Gibney's is one of two documentaries screening at TIFF that hone in on the events surrounding New York's Very Bad Year, and as it happens, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer shows up in Charles Ferguson's Inside Job as well. After rising to prominence in 2007 with his crushing brief on the first months of the Iraq war, No End in Sight, Ferguson has turned his meticulous, indicting eye to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. The Matt Damon-narrated documentary, which first screened at Cannes in May, assembles heavy hitters from the left like Spitzer and Barney Frank to tell the story that Michael Moore told with more bluster and obvious bias in Capitalism: A Love Story last year.

Of course the other giant New York story of 2008 was the “downfall” of former attorney general and then-governor Spitzer. That is Spitzer's self-dramatic word for it — he granted Gibney a reasonably candid interview that is delivered right to camera, à la Mike Tyson in Tyson, and every Errol Morris subject ever — and Gibney seems to agree. The film works to establish the context in which Spitzer became the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street, a moral enforcer who tried to lasso corporate giants like AIG and Merrill Lynch in the years preceding the crash. Gibney gets many of those heavyweights to articulate their experience of Spitzer the Terrible, and in a major get he interviewed the prostitute Spitzer saw multiple times (he hired Ashlee Dupree only once) and has an actress essentially perform that interview's transcripts.

Gibney suggests that the plethora of high-class call girls in New York were a logical side-effect of the decadent atmosphere that unregulated trading wrought. It's one of several tetchy associations in a documentary that both aligns Spitzer with the moral free-for-all of the mid-aughts in New York and holds him above it. Interestingly, Gibney's presentation of the narrative of Spitzer's rise and fall is heavily earmarked by references to the reporting and spin that played out around him, whether he was being canonised in Fortune or New York Magazine as a presidential hopeful, or paddy-whacked down the gauntlet of headline-hungry tabloids. Client 9, like most of Gibney's films about American tragedies, plays like the visual equivalent of a fantastic piece of investigative magazine journalism; his pointed references to a few of those old, dying lions here feels a little bit like a respectful nod to his forebears, and the format he is succeeding.