One of the biggest screenings going into this year’s Tribeca Film Festival may also be one of the most-buzzed-about going out. Tipped as one of the event’s most anticipated films, Alex Gibney’s “Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film” didn’t disappoint at its Saturday night premiere, hitting all the right notes of humor, scandal and revelations for a packed house at Chelsea’s SVA Theater.
The film was one of a number of titles drawing a crowd larger than its theater over the weekend in New York City. A few American entries lured large audiences to the fest, including Ed Burns’ “Nice Guy Johnny,” Bryan Goluboff’s “Beware the Gonzo,” and Dana Adam Shapiro’s “Monogamy,” according to organizers. However, buyers were hardly moved in the opening days of of the fest. By Sunday night, acquisitions execs on the party circuit were boldly warning others to steer clear of the new American narrative films at this year’s fest, in favor of far better international entries and documentaries.
As the 9th Tribeca Film Festival concluded its first weekend, French language titles in particular were quite popular. Jean-Paul Salomé’s “The Chameleon” and Joann Sfar’s “Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus” turned folks away and Pascal Chaumeil’s “Heartbreaker” — already acquired by IFC Films — was such a hit that even patrons holding hard tickets couldn’t get in yesterday. Another screening has been added for this week.
But, it was Alex Gibney’s Spitzer doc that seemed to resonate with audiences and industry alike.
“This is a film about the suit falling apart.”
Chronicling the rise and fall of the former New York State governor and crusading attorney general, the work-in-progress documentary (“mostly finished,” according to Gibney) goes beyond the tabloid headlines to uncover the hidden agendas that may have helped topple Spitzer. “Was this a political hit job?” asks the voiceover suggestively mid-way through the film.
While the film’s working title “Client 9” implies the story’s salacious angle and there’s plenty of sensationalistic elements — including interviews with call girls, ex-madams (the hilariously naive Cecil Suwal, head of the Emperor’s Club) and an exploration of the high-class prostitution ring’s “girlfriend experience” — Gibney is going after bigger fish. This is a film as much about Machiavellian political and financial intrigue as it is about illicit sex, more akin to Gibney’s 2005 doc “Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room” than “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.”
Standing in front of the theater prior to the premiere, Gibney told a story about an associate’s response to his plans for the film: “If you pull at these threads, the whole suit is going to fall apart,” he recalled, evoking the intricate web of politics and deceit that lies beneath the story of Spitzer’s fall. He agreed, telling the audience: “This is a film about the suit falling apart.”
According to early reactions to the film, Gibney and his writer Peter Elkind, author of “Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliott Spitzer,” are already garnering props for blowing a hole in certain mass-media misconceptions, such as the fact that alleged “Spitzer’s girl” Ashley Alexandra Dupre was actually far less involved with Spitzer. They also bring to light for the first time that another call-girl, known as “Angelina,” had far more contact with Spitzer and also knew key details about the F.B.I.’s investigation into his case.
The film’s biggest coup and its most compelling asset, however, is the participation of Spitzer, the once-dubbed “Sheriff of Wall Street” who looks directly into the camera, offering frank and forthright accounts of his political struggles and moral failings. Gibney portrays Spitzer in shades of gray, as both a righteous fighter for the common man and yet also a vociferous attack dog that can’t control his temper (Gibney uncovers the stories behind such infamous Spitzer tirades as “Shove it up his ass with a red hot poker.”)
Tribeca’s audiences lapped up the A&E Indie Films production, and acquisition executives from several companies — such as Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, Roadside Attractions, and others, among others-were in attendance. Post-screening, powerhouse indie sales agent John Sloss and publicist Cynthia Swartz surveyed the reactions from the back of the house.
“So is it theatrical?” Sloss asked this reporter. “I think it is.” According to Sloss, the film has yielded distribution offers, but execs are likely to wait and seek out further reactions and see how Gibney further edits the 2-hour cut.
One executive joked, “Now I don’t have to see ‘Wall Street 2.'”
[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]