It’s easy to resent Doug Liman’s Valerie Plame docudrama Fair Game and Alex Gibney’s shattering documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer for making it hard to put the past decade’s horrors behind us. Zach Galifianakis’s beating off to get to sleep while prissy travel-mate Robert Downey Jr. cringes, in Due Date, is more fun. Even James Franco’s cutting off his arm to get loose from a boulder in 127 Hours is more fun: The act is presented as a garish spectacle, a test of our endurance akin to his real-life character’s, and when it’s over, he’s free, on his way to being immortalized by the memoir he’ll write and the flashy Danny Boyle flick starring … James Franco. Due Date and 127 Hours are slick, fully rounded masochistic fantasies, cathartic and self-contained, whereas Liman and Gibney remind us that the bad guys are still out there: They either got away or had the stakes pulled from their hearts by disciples, like Dracula in the old Hammer films. Along with Charles Ferguson’s enraging Wall Street doc Inside Job and the flood of WikiLeaks material, they make it impossible, unless we’re delusional or on drugs, to think that anything has changed.
Fair Game, based on separate memoirs by Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, is a martyr story in which a skilled professional couple gets the shiv after one of them turns whistle-blower. Its agenda is to show (a) that Wilson was correct in his assessment that yellowcake uranium was not transported from Niger to Iraq, and that his decision to say so publicly (in a New York Times op-ed) after the war was under way was an act of remarkable courage; and (b) Plame was an effective covert CIA agent whose work was compromised and contacts imperiled by political operatives covering their lies. Exposed, abandoned, branded as traitors, the Wilsons finally have no choice but to tell their story, the latest chapter of which is this potent Hollywood melodrama starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts.
Liman works in high-efficiency mode, taking his tone from Plame’s no-nonsense competence—which has the effect of making her husband, the brooder, the man of feeling, the one who stays at home with the kids while she goes on secret missions, look weaker, more conventionally “feminine.” That’s what gives Fair Game its subtext and drama (as opposed to melodrama): Will Plame forgive him for losing his shit and publishing that op-ed (without, according to the movie, discussing it with her in advance), thereby ending her career and threatening their family life? It’s touch and go, and Watts does something subtle in her final scenes: She tells her repentant husband that he did the right thing, he saved her, yet her body doesn’t entirely go along. In any case, he didn’t slay the dragon. Scooter Libby (uncannily impersonated by David Andrews) took the fall, but only for perjury (sentence commuted!), and everyone else in the V.P.’s office, not to mention Karl Rove, got off. The war went on.
Every detail in Fair Game—the title comes from Rove, who allegedly told Chris Matthews, “Wilson’s wife is fair game”—suggests the administration’s scandalous indifference to real threats, as, for example, when Plame was pulled off the Pakistan beat (where there was plenty of evidence of Al Qaeda collusion) and forced to work on Iraq (where there was nada). Libby’s interrogation of Wilson is a concise dramatization of what Ron Suskind called “the One Percent Doctrine”: If there’s a one percent chance there are nukes …
In a largely humorless film, there are two amusing touches. The fictionalized CIA men, craven Jack (Michael Kelly) and Cheney tool Bill (Noah Emmerich), have their surnames blacked out in the cast list—an allusion to Plame’s heavily redacted memoir. And proponents of the yellowcake threat say, like their president, “nucular,” which for me is a Pavlovian zap: “nucular”—arghh—“nucular”—arghh. It’s worse than the Knights Who Say “Ni!”
In Client 9, Gibney has shaped a similar narrative, of a maverick taken down by powerful enemies. Mind you, he can’t make that his stated thesis. Given the strong but circumstantial evidence, Gibney has no choice but to extrapolate and hypothesize, especially considering that his subject, Spitzer, blames only himself, invoking such Greek concepts as “hubris.” It’s probably easier for an ex-prosecutor known for macho threats to say he got caught screwing than for him to say he got screwed. But folks, he was reamed.
For all the juicy, evocative details of high-priced-call-girl emporia, Gibney’s story is rooted in Spitzer’s Wall Street crusades, when he made his name (and enemies) by going hard after the kind of people who’d eventually bring the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and doing it despite SEC indifference (or collusion). Along the way he went mano-a-mano with two of the biggest dogs: former NYSE director Ken Langone and AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former for giving Dick Grasso a nearly $150 million retirement package, the latter for allegedly cooking the books. It was Bush Justice Department lawyer Michael Garcia who ordered Spitzer to drop the case against Greenberg, the same Garcia who would later pursue Governor Spitzer for violating the Mann Act (prohibiting the transport of sex slaves across state lines) on a tip from that proudly Nixonian GOP hit man Roger Stone.
Unexpectedly, Langone, Greenberg, and Stone talk on-camera. They don’t say they hired people to follow Spitzer, but my hunch is they would’ve liked to. Oh, boy, would they. Mere minutes after the scandal broke, Langone was on TV saying an unnamed friend just happened to be standing behind Spitzer in the post office as he counted out hundred-dollar bills for a money order. As journalist Wayne Barrett recounts the story, Langone knew he shouldn’t have said anything about it, but he just … couldn’t … help himself.
It should be said that Spitzer declines to psychoanalyze himself—he won’t go there—and that the lovely, sad-eyed Silda doesn’t appear. But Client 9 offers an eye-popping look at the defunct Emperor’s Club, whose giggly proprietress affirms that it was not Ashley Dupré but “Angelina” who was Spitzer’s regular. Gibney interviewed “Angelina,” but instead of putting her in shadow and distorting her voice, he cast a smart and gorgeous actress named Wrenn Schmidt to stand in for her. (It’s a brilliant, devilish little move.) Dupré, now a New York Post columnist and treasured Fox News guest, closes the movie by giving Geraldo (“You’re also a lovely singer!”) a verse of “Let It Snow” that lingers through the credits like a richly fricative fart.
Summit Entertainment. PG-13.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Magnolia Pictures. R.
Warner Bros. Pictures. R.
Fox Searchlight Pictures. R.