Tuesday, October 26, 2010

DVD Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Casino Jack and the United States of Money *** ½
Directed By:
Alex Gibney.
Written By: Alex Gibney.

Jack Abramoff represents American politics at its worst and most corrupt. He was never elected to public office – never even had his name on a ballot – and yet he controlled much of what happened in Congress and the Senate. He was a lobbyist, who for a hefty fee, would represent your special interest group, and bend the ear of notable politicians. Because he was so close with Tom Delay, who at the time was the leader of the Republican party in Congress, he had a great deal of influence. He would take money from special interests, and then funnel it to politicians – after taking a healthy cut of the money himself. He became rich and powerful, and yet he kept pushing things further and further to the point where he was using his clients money to get politicians do things that were favorable only to Jack Abramoff. His clients, including numerous Native tribes who hired Abramoff to try and either get permission to open a casino, or to shut down a rival one, were billed millions upon millions of dollars, and got nothing back in return. Eventually, when the whole scheme became known, it caused one of the biggest political scandals in Washington since Watergate.

Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side) is one of the best documentary filmmakers in the world right now. His films have a way of taking an incredibly complicated issue – and one that you would think would make for a horribly boring movie – and making it easy to understand, and even entertaining. Casino Jack and the United States of Money won’t really tell you anything about Jack Abramoff or the scandal he was involved in than you already know if you followed the case closely when it erupted into a scandal during the Bush years, but still offers a valuable service – it gathers and distills everything that happened into one two hour, entertaining documentary package. Watching the film, you may be shocked at home deep the corruption really went – Jack Abramoff may have been the worst apple in the barrel, but he was hardly the only rotten one.

The movie paints a picture of Abramoff as a man who never did anything unless it benefitted himself. He got his start in politics with the College Republicans in the early 1980s, where he was around many of the people who would make up the Neo-Conversative movement, and he would exploit these contacts in future years when they rose to power. Abramoff tried his hand at movie producing – thinking that an action movie like Red Scorpion could reach more people with its anti-Communist rhetoric than anything else he could do. But that quickly failed, and Abramoff was in Washington remaking himself as a lobbyist.

The movie displays the tangled web that Abramoff wove – how he exploited Native tribes and their casinos, to fill his own pockets, how he became involved in buying a group of floating casinos, and did so using connections he had that themselves were related to the mob. Also how he exploited a group of small islands, technically under US control, but not subject to their labor laws, to allow a system of forced servitude and prostitution. It’s a ugly picture.

When the scandal finally came to light – helped along by other lobbyists who reported Abramoff to the Washington Post, perhaps because they were really disgusted with what he was doing, or perhaps only because he was better at it, everyone was quick to jump on Abramoff and distance themselves from him. The hearings, run by John McCain, who had his own reasons to hate Abramoff (he had backed Bush in 2000, and funneled all his clients money to him, and not McCain) offered up a scapegoat in Congressman Bob Ney (who deserved it, but was far from the only one involved), forced the resignation of Tom DeLay, but was really just a bunch of sabre rattling. McCain, gearing up for his next Presidential run, didn’t want to upset Republicans too much, so he didn’t.

But what Casino Jack and the United States of Money makes clear is that the whole system is corrupt. It costs a lot of money to run for any public office, and if you cannot get people like Jack Abramoff to steer their clients to you, you cannot get the money you need. If you want to advance in your party, you had better be able to fundraise, and to do that, again you need people like Jack Abramoff. Abramoff essentially was the lobbyist who got his hand caught in the cookie jar – he was stupid enough to put everything he was doing in writing in e-mails to his partner Mike Scanlon, but he is hardly the only corrupt lobbyist in Washington. Although this scandal involves Republicans, there are Democrats who do the same thing. And the system is not likely to change – since the people with the power to change it, are the same ones that benefit most from the system being corrupt. I suspect that in the future, we will see more Jack Abramoff’s – the system as it currently is requires there to be.

Note: In December, George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack, a dramatic film with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff will open in the hope of an Oscar run. I saw that film at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and it as well is a highly entertaining look at Abramoff. The two films would make an interesting double bill – this one being an up close examination of what Abramoff actually did, and Hickenlooper’s being a dramatic representation of the man himself, who for obvious reasons barely appears in the documentary except in the form of video clips. The two films enhance each other.

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