(2010) director Alex Gibney
Eliot Spitzer, the man who fought Wall Street, the man who would be king (or our “first Jewish president”), former New York State DA ass-kicker, former New York State Governor, high-end “escort” consort. Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)) turns his camera on the shamed world-beater, the great liberal hope, Eliot Spitzer, in a story that does have all the elements of the classics, a rise and fall, yet a story for our time.
Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) opened a dumb-founding glimpse into the global financial melt-down, pointing a very accurate finger at the banks and government institutions that conspired to create the “bubble” whose certain burst reaped global damage. In watching Inside Job, it seemed clear to me that Spitzer was one of the few voices of reason in the build-up to the crisis, one of the few who aimed to expose the frauds before the shit hit the fan. And I became interested in knowing more about the fallen New York governor.
Spitzer, it seems, was his own worst enemy. His bulldog style that made him the effective state district attorney that he was, gunning for the fat cats and looking to police Wall St. in a way never policed before, was also an alienating style that created enemies big and small. When he parlayed his rising star career into the Empire state governorship, many believed that the White House would be his ultimate end. Few thought that the rider of such a moral high horse would come to such a devastating fall.
But Spitzer was probably at his best as a DA. Maybe he should have been made Attorney General (if he’d kept from falling from grace before a Democratic regime took the White House). But as a politician, he flopped. Not playing politics with the experienced, entrenched (even if they were corrupt) elite, he made more and more powerful enemies. And when his moral superiority was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, with him utilizing a supremely high-end prostitution ring, he had a lot of folks gunning for his demise and not many sticking up for his merits.
And it’s really, really too bad.
Spitzer, as an attorney for the state of New York, achieved a lot in a short time. He was a bulldog, and he was in his rights, going after a completely corrupt system that was bound for gruesome failure. He had great potential. And his style as well as his misdeeds undid him completely. And all of America is perhaps the worse off for it.
The film focuses on his rise and fall, indeed, but also on the conspiracies that probably fed into his ultimate downfall. Enemies who played dirty politics ultimately probably helped uncover his wrongdoings. But like president Bill Clinton before him, his misdeeds were those of adultery (a heinous crime socially in the US, but perhaps less criminalized in Europe) while the crimes of his enemies were more exploitative (actually illegal, not merely immoral). There is a brutal double standard and greater hypocrisy suggested in his opposition than in himself.
But Spitzer, if he’d been more canny and less philandering, could have been a great man. And truly, he can still. His challenge is his own demeanor, a charming but combatitive style that works for a high-moral straight-laced lawman, but not really for a politician. It’s frustrating. But it’s also hopeful.
There is no reason that Spitzer cannot find a way to parlay his intelligence and commitment to righting the wrongs of the corporate elite into a significant and important role in the present and the future. His stance on moral high-ground has been eroded and thus his position and style would have to adapt to it, but he potentially could have fought the good fight and the good fight still needs fighting. One can only hope for some redemption for someone who has so much to offer a troubled world. And really, an admittedly flawed human being is perhaps a more compelling voice than one who has the pretense of morality yet hides the hypocrisy of his stance.