With Spitzer Documentary, Alex Gibney Explores Another Dark Side

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Published November 3, 2010

 

ALEX GIBNEY. PHOTO BY TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS.

Oscar Wilde—who knew a thing or two about impropriety—was no great fan of scandalmongering. “Oh! Gossip is charming!” he wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan. “History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, a new documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, proves the truth of Wilde’s statement. The movie charts Spitzer’s ascension to power, before exploring every angle of the prostitution scandal that forced the former governor to step down. Along the way, Gibney examines what role Spitzer’s powerful Wall Street enemies may have played in orchestrating his downfall—and reveals the hypocrisy inherent in a group of men who would look down on a john, but thought nothing of stealing millions of dollars from their clients. We caught up with Gibney on the evening of Election Day to talk politics, prostitutes, and Parker Spitzer.

HILLARY BUSIS: Happy Election Day! What do you think of New York’s gubernatorial candidates?

GIBNEY: I wish they were better, let me put it that way.

 

BUSIS: Did the current political climate inspire you to make this movie?

GIBNEY: I think I was inspired to make the movie just because the scandal was so spectacular. There was a couple of odd things about it, obviously—the sheriff of Wall Street going down in a prostitution scandal seemed certainly very odd. And also the timing of it all, that he goes down just as the financial markets seem to be cratering.

BUSIS: So you didn’t really have a narrative sketched out beforehand.

GIBNEY: I wasn’t sure what it meant, frankly. It was a little bit unusual for me. I’ve done films with slightly more of an agenda, though I would argue that they all follow a dramatic story, which is essential—which has its own logic. But in this one in particular, it was more in telling the tale that you see where it takes you.

BUSIS: Did you ever feel that after Taxi to the Dark Side, this movie—which is ostensibly about a sex scandal, but turns out to be about a lot more than that—would seem light by comparison?

GIBNEY: It wasn’t light. At the end of the day it ended up getting into some pretty heavy topics. Mind you, unlike Taxi to the Dark Side, there were a lot of light moments to the film. But I think issues of love, sex, fidelity, infidelity—those are pretty fundamental issues in terms of the human story.

BUSIS: The most striking thing about the film is how you got Spitzer to be completely candid with you. How did you get him on board?

GIBNEY: It was kind of a double-bowed approach. Peter Elkind, who was the editor at large at Fortune magazine, had co-authored the book about Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room. He had known Spitzer in college and also written some profiles on him. So I had contacted him right off the bat and we agreed to work together. He was going to do the book and I was going to do the movie. I think our pitch to Spitzer was, “If you want to go forward you’re going to have to reckon with the past in a serious way, not just wait for time to pass and expect everyone to forget.”

I think he was also motivated in the sense that we told him, and it was truthful, that we were doing a rise-and-fall story. That it wasn’t going to be just the scandal; that we were going to set the scandal in terms of a larger context. I think those two aspects got him to agree. I can’t say that talking about the scandal was easy for him, but he sat there and did try to reckon with it.

BUSIS: Would you agree with his chosen metaphor for his rise and fall—that he flew too close to the sun?

GIBNEY: Well, I would agree to it to some extent—but I would find there is a kind of unintended irony there, too. You know, that when you fall and you fall in a sex scandal, you end up comparing yourself to Greek mythology. And yet I think by the end, you very much see him as a figure in a Greek tragedy, someone whose fatal flaw is exposed in the context of enemies who are vociferous and eager to take him down.

BUSIS: Silda Wall Spitzer and Spitzer’s daughters don’t appear in the film, and his family isn’t really discussed at all. Why not?

GIBNEY: In terms of his daughters, I felt that that was not really material for the film, and [would be] an invasion of privacy to go there. In terms of Silda Wall Spitzer, I did approach her. I tried to get her to appear, and she declined. But I think I tried to at least have others speak for her and to integrate her to some extent in the film. I think what had happened for so long was that that image of her standing [next to Spitzer], her gaze cast down, a kind of glassy-eyed look, that that had become the stereotype. I wanted to at least do enough in the film to run her against that. It wasn’t so simple. She wasn’t put in that situation; she chose to be there.

One of the interesting things about this film is that there are no easy answers. The immediate reaction was, “What the hell is she doing with him, why doesn’t she leave him?” In fact, I think on E! not too long after the Tribeca work-in-progress screening, they wanted me to say something. They said, “We want you to do an intro to our show. We want you to say, ‘The most incredible thing about this whole story is why Silda Spitzer is still with her husband!'” I’m not going to say that. One of the interesting aspects of this film is it tells you a lot about the contours of human nature: they aren’t so neat and tidy.

BUSIS: It’s surprising that Ashley Dupré doesn’t show up, considering she’s built a career on mistakenly being called “Spitzer’s girl.” [In the film, Gibney reveals that Dupré and Spitzer slept together just once.]

GIBNEY: I agree. And I tried very hard to get her to come on board. It was an extended courtship, if you want to put it that way—or attempt to make a deal, or negotiation.

BUSIS: Does she have a lot of people these days?

GIBNEY: She’s got a lot of people around her. Ultimately, she wanted editorial control over her story and I wasn’t going to give that up. It’s odd to me, really, that she obviously did give other interviews and was on various shows, but nobody really asked her what happened [with Spitzer]. Or if they did, she didn’t answer and they just let it go on.

BUSIS: Yeah, that happens in the interview with Diane Sawyer you include in the movie. It doesn’t seem to be very important to hear the truth.

GIBNEY: They could have skated right on by because they had a live, breathing figure who had slept with Eliot Spitzer. And that, seemingly, was all that was important. That’s how she was used, in the months to come, by Fox and the New York Post. It’s really kind of a staggering lesson. Everyone thought that she was one thing when nobody has ever even asked her whether she was that thing: Eliot Spitzer’s regular escort.

BUSIS: How did you find Angelina, Spitzer’s actual preferred escort?

GIBNEY: In a way, the best news about Ashley turning me down was that it forced me to dig deeper. I found the madam, CeCe, and then I managed to find Angelina’s real name. I managed to find the people who actually knew people in common and managed to arrange a meeting. At the meeting I told her I knew who she was, and she agreed to talk on the condition that I not identify her real identity. She was a real truth-teller who had a very distinct point of view. Very pretty, engaging, intelligent sort of person—and considering all the stereotypes of escorts, that was interesting to me.

BUSIS: Have you caught Parker Spitzer, the ex-governor’s new CNN show?

GIBNEY: I think the show—look, he’s smart. So is Kathleen Parker. In a way, I wish they’d let him off his leash a little bit more. I think when he’s on his game, and when he’s speaking candidly, and he’s not shoehorned into some kind of image-making machinery, he’s a very interesting character.

BUSIS: Did you also read the report about him getting rejected from the Harvard Club?

GIBNEY: I did. I figured he wasn’t the only person. [LAUGHS]  He certainly wasn’t the only person in the Harvard Club to have frequented an escort service, so it was a little hard for me to understand why they would have turned him down.

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER OPENS NOVEMBER 5 AT THE ANGELIKA AND LINCOLN PLAZA CINEMAS IN NEW YORK, AND IN SELECT THEATERS AROUND THE COUNTRY THROUGHOUT THE REST OF THIS MONTH. IT IS ALSO AVAILABLE NOW TO WATCH ON DEMAND.