As part of what has been unofficially labeled the Alex Gibney Film Festival, Tribeca unveiled the prolific Oscar-winner's officially untitled work-in-progress documentary about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Saturday night to a packed auditorium of lucky festival-goers (it was the only screening of the film as part of this event and therefore tickets were highly in-demand). Those who made it in were treated to a lengthy, in-depth and surprisingly sympathetic look at a fallen figure, and at many moments throughout the presentation the audience roared with laughter, often at the expense of those individuals interviewed onscreen.
Temporarily titled Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, the film details the shamed politician's career from Wall Street-wrangling Attorney General to reform-bent state leader. Focusing on the many enemies and wrong kinds of "friends" Spitzer made throughout his decade in office, Gibney, with help from author Peter Elkind, speculates on the connection between the two, implying that a conspiracy led to the Governor's 2008 resignation as much as did his regular hiring of prostitutes. Elkind, who was also Gibney's collaborator for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has also recently published a non-fiction book on the story, titled Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
The film's main assets may be its access to Spitzer himself and to an anonymous escort he saw far more regularly than the tabloid-friendly Ashley Dupre. The unnamed call-girl's testimony is recited in-character by actress Wrenn Schmidt. Other interviewees include Spitzer nemeses Ken Langone (who must be portrayed by Fyvush Finkel in the dramatic remake, by the way), Richard Grasso and New York State Senator Joe Bruno, all of whom are quite hilarious in the no-holds-barred and uncensored language employed to tell their sides of the story. Audience favorite, however, was the bubbly and candid young escort-ring manager Cecil Suwal, who constantly admits to being ignorant of the illegality of her business.
One might wish for an appearance from Dupre, as well, but Gibney addressed her absence after an audience member's inquiry during the post-screening Q&A. "I tried to interview Ashley Dupre," he revealed, "and I asked her and her representatives -- it was a lengthy negotiation -- but ultimately it fell apart when Ashley Dupre asked if she could have editorial control, which I was not wiling to cede. There were times when the editing process was difficult and I considered giving her editorial control, but that's only because editing is very difficult."
The audience laughed at the jokey turn in the director's response, but it was a perfect tying up of the film's status as an unfinished work. The main consensus from the screening's attendees -- other than maybe the desire for additional interviews with Dupre, Silda Wall Spitzer and more allies of the ex-Governor -- seemed to be that at more than two hours the present cut is way too long. Gibney is aware of this, of course. A work-in-progress documentary is typically a lengthy rough cut rather than an inconclusive narrative; non-fiction films are in the editing stage as much of, if not more than, a wittling process than a compiling one. And prior to the start of the film, the filmmaker acknowledged that this began as an unframed project and that an event like this could potentially bring about suggestions from an audience as to what he might need to work on.
Unfortunately, as any attendee of a film festival screening or similar event knows, post-screening Q&As rarely warrant much criticism, even constructively. Instead there's more praise disguised as fluff query and predictable interest in craft and follow ups on characters. Not even help with a definite title was offered to the film, which is currently still going by the moniker "Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film." Gibney joked about other ideas, including "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Aint Misbehavin'," but I wonder why he doesn't simply go for the full tie-in potential of naming it after Elkind's book, even if the two aren't necessarily companion pieces and the film doesn't go as deeply into some areas as Rough Justice is able to. Maybe if you have any better ideas, you can comment below, regardless of whether or not you were in attendance Saturday.