Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Lying Low: Casino Jack and the United States of Money examines shady dealings of swindler/lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
The director of the 2008 Oscar winning Taxi to the Dark Side, filmmaker Alex Gibney is one of most important documentarians working today. His past films have included the Oscar nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and 2008’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. Before releasing upcoming features on road cycling legend Lance Armstrong, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Gibney points his lens at Jack Abramoff – the former Washington D.C. lobbyist who was sentenced to prison on fraud, tax evasion and conspiring to bribe public officials – in Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
While many will recall Abramoff as the lobbyist who bilked Native American tribes out of millions of dollars, Gibney’s movie sheds light on Abramoff’s intriguing pre-lobbyist days. As the chairmen of the College Republicans, the conservative played a part in organizing college rallies for the far right that recall the Tea Parties of today. (One annual event included the smashing of a replica Berlin Wall with sledgehammers.)
Even more entertaining is a segment that details Abramoff’s foray into action adventure filmmaking. Before heading to Washington, Abramoff produced and co-wrote 1989’s Red Scorpion, a ridiculous looking flick starring Dolph Lundgren as a Soviet agent who rebels against the Communists to support a rebel uprising in Africa.
After scenes from Abramoff’s early days, Casino Jack focuses on Abramoff’s Washington exploits as he befriends powerful politicians including former House majority leader Tom DeLay and former congressman Bob Ney. With those powerful connections, Abramoff secured a strange assortment of clients including factory owners in the U.S. territory of the Mariana Islands and mysterious Russian businessmen who paid him vast sums of money for his position close to the Republican lawmakers.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money features lots of talking heads and close-ups of fidgeting fingers. Most impressively, Gibney scores by securing interviews with a defiant Delay and a candid Ney, who just finished serving 17 months in prison for corruption charges related to his dealings with Abramoff. But as the number of characters in the documentary swell to the size of a Broadway musical cast, Abramoff’s myriad scams become mind numbing.
While details of Abramoff’s dealings are infuriating, Casino Jack and the United States of Money fails to locate a motivating factor for the lobbyist besides trying to add to the coffers of the Republican Party. It also neglects to shed any light on Abramoff’s personal life. How was he spending all the money he received from the shady dealings? Did he have a family?
At the beginning of the film, Gibney poses the question: “Is the story of Abramoff a tale of personal corruption or the story of what our democracy has become?” The documentary decides on the latter and simply indicates that Abramoff is just a player in a corrupt system. But after hearing that the lobbyist called Native Americans “morons, stupid idiots, monkeys and f-ing troglodytes” while taking as much of their money as he could get his hands on, Abramoff seems to be a bit more than a typical Washington insider.