'Client 9' documentary: Eliot Spitzer's rise and fall, and a credible hit-job theory

Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with his wife, Silda, in 2008, addresses the media and apologizes to his family for a "private matter." (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

'I did what I did. And shame on me."

That's Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York, fessing up to Alex Gibney in the closing minutes of the filmmaker's riveting Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, suggests that Spitzer's downfall might have been facilitated by enemies he'd made busting chops on Wall Street and in Albany.

Forced to resign from his governorship when it was revealed that he had been frequenting an escort service, Spitzer says the right thing: He did it, and shame.

But Gibney, in this fascinating documentary about sex and ambition, power and hubris, makes the case that despite Spitzer's epically reckless hotel trysts with $1,000-an-hour call girls, he may well have been the target of a political hit. Just look at the loathing in Kenneth Langone's eyes when the Home Depot billionaire is asked about Spitzer; listen to the threatening phone message to Spitzer's father, alleged to have been made by rogue Republican lobbyist Roger Stone; take in the grin on Joseph Bruno's mug when the former majority leader of the New York Senate - Spitzer's pugilistic rival in the legislature - recalls reading those "Luv Guv" headlines.

The telling tragedy of a powerful man undone by his own libido ("the only metaphor I can think of is Icarus," says Spitzer), and a more-than-credible conspiracy theory involving forces in Wall Street and Washington, Client 9 works like a good detective novel: Colorful and seemingly disparate characters are introduced, and then the strands that tie them together are revealed in a rich, sordid, thrilling tableau.

What does that tattooed street artist with the massive biceps have to do with Spitzer, the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street who, as New York's attorney general and then governor, led a hard-charging crusade against white-collar crime?

Can that giggly young woman who ran the platinum-priced Emperors Club be much older than the disgraced politician's own daughters?

The George W. Bush-era controversy about the firing of U.S. attorneys and partisan politics in the Justice Department? How could that relate to Spitzer's implosion?

The collapse and bailout of AIG, and the financial crisis of 2008? Could Spitzer have done anything about that?

Client 9 is built around Gibney's on-camera sessions with the disgraced governor. (Disgraced, but on the rebound with a new show, Parker Spitzer, on CNN. Consider Gibney's film the first step in Spitzer's image-rehab campaign.) Among the many talking heads are a cadre of understandably disillusioned Spitzer loyalists. And there are remarkable interviews with the aforementioned merry young madam, Cecil Suwal, along with Langone, Bruno, Stone, and the ex-chairman and chief executive officer of AIG, Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg.

Gibney pieces everything together smartly, slickly. His use of an actress to recite the verbatim recollections of the escort that Spitzer saw most often (not "Kristen," or Ashley Dupre, the call girl who did him in) is a somewhat questionable tactic. Instead of disguising the real woman's face and voice, he uses the believable and beautiful Wrenn Schmidt - but Gibney doesn't own up to this bit of verite dramatization until late in the game.

Still, Client 9 speaks plenty of truth - about politics, power, human nature - even if you don't buy into the hit-job hypothesis.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Directed by Alex Gibney. With Eliot Spitzer. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 57 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some sexual material, nudity and language).