‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money’: Cashing in

May 6, 2010

Given the general attention-deficit disorder that afflicts the public – when they pay attention to the news long enough for anything substantial to register – the information packed into Alex Gibney’s crisply overwhelming indictment of Republican business-as-usual – “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” – should come as a surprise and a shock to much of the electorate.


That is, providing they actually go to a theater to see it (or rent it when it goes to DVD or watch it when it shows up on TV). I highly recommend this movie – and I have little faith that the audience that most needs to see a film as intelligent, searing and provocative as this one would actually make the effort to seek it out.


I’d go so far as to call this the most important political film since Gibney’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.” And the Oscar-nominated “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”


In clear, concise and infuriatingly thorough detail, Gibney tells the story of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s – and the consequent metastasis of power into influence-peddling, bribery and general wrong-doing, spear-headed by greedy, grasping, conniving super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.


Unfortunately, when I described the film to several friends and acquaintances after I saw it at Sundance in January, I was disheartened by the number of people who stopped me to say, “Jack who?”


Jack Abramoff – and shame on anyone who considers themselves to be attuned to what’s been happening politically in the past 10 years who doesn’t know his name. As Gibney’s film illustrates, Abramoff was a self-promoting conservative hustler who figured out how to transform his lobbying practice into the stacked-deck kind of backroom shenanigans that many people assume is the basis of all government.


A nationally known leader of the college Republicans, Abramoff quickly turned his efforts to lobbying, gradually building a reputation as the guy who had the juice. He lobbied on behalf of everything from Chinese sweatshops to Indian tribes (which proved his undoing, when he tried to play both sides against the middle).


As the film shows, Abramoff was a master at greasing the skids with gifts, lavish travel, expensive meals – and with cashing in on the needs of others. With the Indian tribes, he landed one tribe as clients to help them hold on to their casino license – then bled the tribe that was challenging for that license by promising to lobby for their effort as well.


He understood the mutual back-scratching needs of Washington: Businessman A has money, which Politician B needs for his reelection campaign. Politician B has the capability of pushing Businessman A’s cause – deregulation, regulation, whatever. Let’s make a deal – with Jack Abramoff in the middle, skimming his profit off the top.


Abramoff mastered the art of insinuating himself into powerful circles and became the go-to guy for anyone who wanted the ear of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Eventually, he was also providing a similar service to the Bush White House through Karl Rove, offering skybox tickets to the Washington Redskins, or  meals at his lavish restaurant in Washington (“Liberal portions at conservative prices!”).


Before long, the cause took a backseat to the money. Abramoff and his partners in crime had found a way to bring in big bucks by promising everything – without necessarily having to deliver. He just had to show he tried.


A movie buff and L.A. native who wanted to produce movies, Abramoff seemed to see himself as a larger-than-life, above-the-law figure. As someone says about him in the film, “He believed the rules don’t apply because the cause is so important.”


But when the cause is lining your own pocket, of gaining and maintaining influence, of keeping your friends in power so they can funnel business and cash to you – which cause is it exactly that is so important that you can ignore the law?


Yes, I know – there are corrupt Democrats as well as Republicans. But somehow the corruption seems that much more unseemly coming from the side that preaches morality and family values, even as it lines it pockets with ill-gotten gains.


Abramoff’s undoing was another money-making scheme: an attempt to buy a Florida company that sent cruise ships out to international waters as floating casinos. The way he was tripped up is too complicated to go into here, but it involved murder, fraud and the mob. That led to the unraveling of the rest of his shady dealings.


It’s a twisted and complex story, one that Gibney tells with great precision, drawing the lines – literally – between Abramoff and everyone from conservative hucksters like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist to a wide variety of issues and legislators. He also has priceless interviews with several of the principals (though not with Abramoff himself, who is in prison), including weaselly former Ohio congressman Bob Ney (who was convicted of taking bribes) and DeLay, who flashes a reptilian smile as he denies doing anything illegal.


Even if you followed the Abramoff case when it was in the news (he pleaded guilty in 2006 and gets out of prison this year), there are elements to the story that make the mind boggle. The material Gibney has amassed could cause heads to explode – the brazen greed, sheer gall and dazzling hypocrisy is that extreme.


Which makes “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” a rich, well-researched and anger-inducing film. It should be required viewing for anyone who wants to vote in the 2010 election and has teabags stapled to their person, just to remind them of what “the good old days” of the Bush administration were really about.




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