Casino Jack and the United States of Money

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Docu
 
By Michael T. Dennis
 
In the new documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” filmmaker Alex Gibney turns what could have been a dull, gloomy story about mild political corruption into an entertaining spectacle, complete with a cast of characters that seem tailor made for the big screen.  
 
The cast is led by Jack Abramoff, given the moniker “Casino Jack” for his time spent lobbying Washington for (and sometimes against) Native American casinos around the country.  Abramoff is the kind of figure we love to hate, using his self-styled image as a Jewish huckster to persuade and manipulate anyone with a dollar to spend, or a vote to cast.
 
Behind Abramoff there's a long list of players, ranging from former House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Ohio Congressman Robert Ney to a soft spoken Delaware lifeguard named Dave Grosh, who lent his name to Abramoff as the front for a money laundering scheme. Ex-president George W. Bush appears on a few brief occasions in a supporting role.
 
“Casino Jack” follows Abramoff's rise to power, starting with his idealized youth as a Beverly Hills High School jock.  After falling in love with the image of Ronald Reagan, Abramoff rises to lead the College Republicans and starts making inroads toward the back alleys of American politics, befriending key people and promoting an every-man-for-himself future free of regulations and moderation of any kind.
 
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Show Me The Money Clip
 
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The distaste for moderation follows Abramoff all the way to the top of becoming a mega-lobbyist, strategically redirecting millions of dollars from his clients into certain political campaigns.  There are also perks, ranging from free meals (Abramoff eventually opens his own fine dining restaurant in Washington to facilitate this part of the process) to foreign vacations and jaunts on a private jet.
 
All of this sounds rather blasé in the cynical world of federal lawmaking. Talking head interviews with politicians, pundits and Abramoff clients make it clear that there's nothing unique about Abramoff's behavior.  In the end, his "simple crime" amounted to keeping too much money for himself, via an elaborate network of wire fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.  Abramoff was found guilty of all these crimes in 2006, when he was handed a five-year prison term.
 
In a way this conclusion, though satisfying from an ethical perspective, represents a setback for the film. “Casino Jack” wants to be about the sources of corruption and the dire need to change the system, but with Abramoff and his cohorts behind bars, everything seems fine by the time it's all over. (The film's end credits roll over footage of disgraced Congressman and Abramoff pal Tom DeLay performing on “Dancing with the Stars:” a fitting purgatory.)
 
The movie's single-mindedness is also questionable. We follow Abramoff right to the bitter end, unaware that his joyride is about to be derailed until one day a newspaper report calls attention to his corruption and all hell breaks loose.  Question is, who wrote that report?  In fact, there were several reporters following Abramoff's dealings, either through a local interest story or as part of a larger investigation of Washington lobbyists. Aside from a few short mentions, their stories are glaringly absent, leaving no one to serve as a counterpoint to Abramoff's villainy.
 
That said, these omissions shouldn't taint what is a rather impressive documentary. Huge amounts of information are presented, including dozens of politicians who sound alike and also look alike (sporting the same bad haircut).  Abramoff's trail of corruption extends for decades and circles the globe, with stops in the sweatshops of the Northern Marianas Islands and the ancient golf links of Scotland. Yet somehow the filmmakers present it all with clarity, and even humor.
 
Director Alex Gibney, whose credits include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” is no stranger to finding the entertainment value in serious issues. His 2008 docu, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” gives him the background in handling big personalities that lets him handle Abramoff so adeptly.
 
“Casino Jack” makes use of graphics, voice-over, pop songs, and some well-chosen clips from Frank Capra's classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” to hold interest and begin to contextualize the story of a recent scandal within the long history of American political disappointments. The result is a two-hour movie that never feels labored, but also doesn't spout facts faster than they can be absorbed.
 
For its narrow target audience (cable news junkies, liberal cynics, and well-informed moralists), “Casino Jack” is likely to satisfy. For everyone else, the message may be under-whelming, but watching it should shed some light on the process of political corruption in a world where idealism is a dangerous quality and falling from grace is as routine as a bad turn from a slot machine.
 
Cast
 
Featuring Jack Abramoff, William Branner Tom DeLay, Donn Dunlop, Kevin Henderson, Hal Kreitman, Kelly Brian Kuhn, Paolo Mugnaini, Bob Nay, Ralph Reed, Michael Scanlon and Neil Volz
 
Credits
 
Participant Media, GOOD and Jigsaw Productions
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Alex Gibney
Producers, Bill Banowsky, Zena Barakat, Sam Black, Mark Cuban, Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney, Benjamin Goldhirsh, Alexandra Johnes, Jeff Skoll, Todd Wagner, Diane Weyermann
Original Music, David Robbins
Cinematographer, Maryse Alberti
Editor, Alison Ellwood