New York’s disgraced former governor—the subject of documentary director Alex Gibney’s work in progress, Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film—didn’t show up, as was rumored he might, for Saturday night’s Tribeca Film Festival screening.
But he should have.
He probably would have received a standing ovation from the A-list audience of New Yorkers, which included Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, real-estate billionaire and Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, CBS News exec Susan Zirinsky and her husband Joe Peyronnin, and writer-director Nora Ephron and her husband Nick Pileggi.
He comes off as remarkably self-reflective and unsparing of his flaws—not just for a public figure, but for anybody.
As it was, the cheering was for the movie, not the man. “I just emailed him,” Spitzer’s friend and campaign admaker, Jimmy Siegel, told me after the applause died down. “I told him I felt that the film was extremely positive for him, on balance. And I thought it was a very good film as well.”
The two-hour film, which still might get some tweaking, is the product of two years of research and on-camera interviews with key players in the scandal, notably Spitzer himself, by Gibney and author Peter Elkind—who also collaborated on the 2005 hit Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Elkind’s companion book on the controversy, Rough Justice, has just been published.
The filmmakers suggest that Spitzer’s March 2008 downfall was engineered by powerful enemies on Wall Street and inside the Bush Justice Department, who targeted and surveilled the Democratic governor—known as “The Sheriff of Wall Street” when he was New York’s take-no-prisoners attorney general—and exposed him as “Client 9” of a busted prostitution ring, Emperor’s Club VIP.
Gibney, who serves as the film’s narrator, argues that federal prosecutors departed from Justice Department guidelines against focusing on johns in prostitution cases, in order to throw a harsh spotlight on Client 9 in an unusually lurid, clue-heavy affidavit detailing Spitzer’s assignations with high-priced call girls. There were more than enough hints and obvious press leaks for the news media to identify the hapless customer, resulting in his governorship being snuffed out a mere 16 months after he was elected in a landside.
But Spitzer—who sat for four lengthy, often uncomfortable interviews—is not so easy on himself. “Not to mince words,” he tells Gibney in the movie, “my view is I brought myself down… I did what I did, and shame on me.”
Siegel—who is among the many Spitzer friends and foes who cooperated with Gibney (including such mortal Spitzer enemies as former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who is facing federal corruption charges, and billionaire businessman Ken Langone)—said the film revived raw feelings.
“It’s still emotional to think about what could have been, and I was sad to see it all happen,” Siegel said. “It reminded me of the feelings we all had when everything came crashing down. I felt that someone had died, and you couldn’t have a funeral for them.”
Spitzer campaign fundraiser Kristian Stiles, who also appears on screen, had a similar reaction. “When I was watching, I’m still angry and hurt, and you feel he betrayed the many staff people who believed in him and worked hard for him,” she said. “The other level is it shows the person who believes in forgiveness and the good fight, and you didn’t know if you want him to make a comeback. It goes back and forth with me.”
Spitzer, who has indeed been angling in recent months for a political comeback, seems to have decided that gritting his teeth, and subjecting himself to Gibney’s grilling about an episode in his life he’d sooner forget, was a door he had to walk through to put the scandal behind him.
He comes off as remarkably self-reflective and unsparing of his flaws—not just for a public figure, but for anybody—and he also conveys a sense that he’s still grappling with the psychological and emotional fallout of his carnal sins. (His aggrieved wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, declined Gibney’s interview request.)
Eliot’s authoritarian father, self-made real-estate tycoon Bernard Spitzer, comes in for special scrutiny as a role model for the ex-governor’s hard-charging ways, in which politics was a form of extreme combat. At one point the son recounts: “I don’t want the impression to be that he was devoid of compassion, but it is true that he foreclosed on me in a Monopoly game…. I think what he was trying to do was teach me how the market worked. Monopoly was a fun game, but I had been overbuilt and overextended and he said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s it, there are consequences.’ I cried. I think I was about 10 years old. I was a kid. It was no fun. I wanted to be bailed out.”
Other revelations in the movie:
•Spitzer nemesis Roger Stone, the Republican operative who worked to blow up the scandal on behalf of Joe Bruno and unnamed businessmen, is a sexual swinger who has Richard Nixon’s smiling face tattooed on his back.
•Contrary to one of Stone’s more widely circulated claims, Spitzer did not wear long black socks during sex with call girls—he took them off, and they were short.
•Ken Langone decided Spitzer was “evil” after the then-attorney general sued Langone, who headed the New York Stock Exchange’s compensation committee, and NYSE chief Dick Grasso over the latter’s $140 million retirement package. “I’d like to think I’m not a vindictive person,” Langone tells the filmmakers. “The basic tenet of my faith is forgiveness. The worst harm that Eliot Spitzer has done to me is that I am defying my faith. I can’t forgive him. I should, but I can’t.”
•Ashley Alexandra Dupre, who parlayed sex with Spitzer into a career as a minor celebrity and the New York Post’s advice columnist, actually had only a single encounter with him—the fateful one-night stand at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Spitzer’s favorite call girl was a whip-smart New York artist nicknamed “Angelina”—whom Gibney interviewed off camera, then hired an actress to perform her lines for the movie. Initially, Angelina recalls, Spitzer was a “trying-to-get-his-money’s-worth type client,” and “I told the agency, I don’t want to see that person again.” But after a second encounter, in which she insisted that they sit and talk first, she began to see him regularly, and would frequently give him the benefit of her insights on various aspects of New York governance.
Speaking of Ashley Dupre, Gibney said he would have liked to have interviewed the “luv guv’s ho,” but she wasn’t available. “I asked her and her representatives. It was a lengthy negotiation, but it ultimately fell apart when Ashley Dupre asked if she could have editorial control. There were times when the editing process was difficult and I considered giving her editorial control,” the director joked.
As the audience filed out of the theater, I managed to get a couple of spot reviews. Nick Pileggi, who wrote the book on which Martin Scorsese’s classic Mafia movie Goodfellas was based, pronounced the Spitzer film “absolutely fascinating.”
Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of 48 Hours: Mystery, told me: “It’s a terrific film. To balance it out with the good, the bad, and the ugly is really the ultimate achievement in film. You feel everything for this one guy. You feel his pain, you feel his frustrations, but you also see the brilliance—and that’s success. But the truth is, even before this film, you felt for the schmuck, no matter what.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.