Casino Jack and The United States of Money
‘Casino Jack’ follows the money trail
Alex Gibney may be one of the smartest documentary polemicists out there. He turned the Enron debacle into horrifying entertainment in 2005’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’’ and took on Guantanamo Bay torture in the wrenching Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side’’ (2007). The Jack Abramoff scandal almost defeats him, though, simply because there’s so much of the damn thing. The sources of this moral oil spill go back a quarter century and the taint now touches everything, including the fundamental cogs of the US government. Trying to take stock of what lobbyists have done to this country is like trying to count killer bees from the inside of the swarm.
Nor does it help matters that the one person we want to hear from — Abramoff — is not available for comment, being a guest of the federal government for the time being. And because Abramoff was always the wheeler-dealer in the background, the glue connecting so many of the powerful and the venal, most of the footage of him is either Before (in his college Republican days) and After (under fire from a Senate committee).
No matter. Gibney is a busy boy, and he draws the lines between Abramoff and his friends — and his friends’ friends — with the documentary equivalent of a highlighter. It’s a shock to see the lobbyist in his youth palling around with a mutton-chopped young Karl Rove and future Christian Coalition stalwart Ralph Reed — as boyish and beady-eyed as ever — back when they were just planning to take over the world rather than doing it.
“Casino Jack,’’ in fact, makes a case that the college conservatives of the 1980s constituted a radical attempt to monkeywrench the machinery of state, whether for purposes of idealism or greed. Entitled young ideologues are dangerous no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, but you could argue that those on the right are motivated by engaged selfishness (taking what’s seen as rightly one’s own), while those on the left are spurred by selflessness (which may need an extra twist before turning corrupt but, as history bears out, can get there just fine).
Which is to say that Abramoff went where the money was, and the movie succeeds by doing the same. When the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands needed a friend in Washington in the late 1990s to protect its garment sweatshops and abused workers from government laws, the lobbyist arranged “fact-finding’’ trips and funneled money to the election campaigns of those in power. The images we see of life in the Marianas — indentured servitude, ruined environments, women forced into the sex trade — is practically a recruitment poster for wholly unregulated capitalism.
Abramoff succeeded by exploiting the greedy and naïve, bilking Native American tribes out of $85 million to arrange favorable conditions for their casinos and, in one case, helping shut down a casino he’d had a hand in creating when another tribe paid him more. Outright fraud wasn’t past him, either; ask the SunCruz investors. “Casino Jack’’ offers evidence, though, that the lobbyist may have really been a frustrated showman, choreographing a ridiculous “Freedom Fighters’’ summit hosted by Angolan strongman Jonas Savimbi and writing and producing the hysterical 1989 anti-communist action movie “Red Scorpion,’’ starring Dolph Lundgren. Gibney has footage from both, and we laugh, laugh, laugh until suddenly we don’t.
With the arrival of the George W. Bush administration, Abramoff’s pals were in power, and one of the shocks of “Casino Jack’’ is the blitheness with which they sold their favors. A kid like Neil Volz, who worked for Representative Bob Ney, can express regret for his moral blindness, but Ney himself, now out of prison after 2 1/2 years for taking bribes, is blandly defensive, and disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay doesn’t even bother to go that far. Of course it’s about money and power. Of course it’s about winning, whether the Cold War, an election, or “Dancing With the Stars.’’
Trying to wrangle the octopus into clear focus, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money’’ gets it right one tentacle at a time, but the larger picture of a D.C. culture of influence-peddling and naked greed takes longer to coalesce. Too bad for Gibney that the sucker punch, the Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision to extend political free speech status to corporate campaign spending, came after the film was finished (it gets a mention before the final credits roll). Abramoff may be in prison but the mindset that produced him — and the pay-to-play government it needs to survive — is triumphant.