Not so much a documentarian as a one-man assembly line, Alex Gibney offers his third documentary this year (not counting his contribution to the Freakonomics group film), rehashing at endless length (as its title promises) the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer, New York's former attorney general and governor whose career was abruptly terminated after news of his employment of prostitutes came to light. Hardly an underexposed affair, it inspired episodes of Law & Order, South Park and Castle, not to mention the CBS show The Good Wife. Gibney's main contribution here is a conspiracy theory (expounded by Peter Elkind, who wrote a book on the subject) that Spitzer was brought down by financial powerhouses angered by his vigorous Wall Street prosecutions and petty political rivals. The case may be plausible, but Gibney's method - a singularly unimaginative trawl through archival footage and listlessly edited talking heads - is life-sapping to watch, and his editorial contributions laughably literal-minded. Commercial prospects, as with all his work, remain inexplicably bright; Gibney's true genius is for plugging into hot topics at rapid speed, though in this case he may have been too slow.
The facts are well known: after a string of prosecutions and investigations received well everywhere but Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer became governor of New York in a landslide in 2006, setting himself up for a potential run at becoming the first Jewish president. Instead, at the height of his career, he started patronizing prostitutes, and after an inglorious exposure he resigned and retreated entirely from political life. Gibney dutifully interviews Spitzer, aides, prostitutes and Elkind (with whom Gibney previously collaborated on Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), as well as a smattering of Spitzer's financial foes. All are filmed dully, their points underlined by some ridiculously literal footage. If someone compares Wall Street brokers to sharks among minnows, Gibney cuts to footage of a shark; if a (rather standard) point is being made about pretty and ambitious prostitutes, he plays Spoon's "All The Pretty Girls Go To The City." This is filmmaking whose primary function is to double-underline everything.
iMovie users are familiar with the "Ken Burns effect," which automatically replicates the veteran documentarian's main effect by slowly zooming in and out of still photographs. Gibney seems keenly aware of it as well; long stretches are punctuated by deadly dull 10-second stares at unenlightening photographs. Visual distinction rears its head once, in the form of a Bank of America commercial. As a rule, all the footage shot by others is more compelling than Gibney's. The interviews may have people staring straight on - per Errol Morris' Interrotron technique - but Gibney, to put it lightly, is no Morris. Nor, it has to be said, is his case all that air-tight: he's a master of the suggestive implication (or rather, the hamhanded blunt insinuation), but his actual evidence is as thin as a Michael Moore argument.
It's remarkable how much of this film is simply close-ups of magazine layouts or screenshots. Not content to stick to the dull but known, however, Gibney inexplicably chooses to deliver his "gotcha" testimony via Spitzer's favorite pseudonymous prostitute "Angelina," who consented to speak but not to be exposed so an actress recites her lines. That actress is one Wrenn Schmidt, who's sometimes plausibly naturalistic but more often strictly amateur-hour: pausing theatrically for emphasis, delivering her memorized testimony with all the conviction of an employee-training-video thespian and generally adding an extra layer of awkwardness to an already awkward film. By the time Gibney gets around to arguing how Spitzer alone could've prevented the global financial collapse, viewers will have to still be awake to notice how loose his case is.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Maiken Baird, Alex Gibney, Jedd Wider and Todd Wider
Rating: Rated R for some sexual material, nudity and language.
Running time: 117 min
Release date: November 5, 2010