Friday, May 28, 2010

Film Review | Casino Jack and the United States of Money

In Jack We Trust

by Thomas Delapa

If I were a betting man, I’d give odds that most audiences will likely take a pass on Casino Jack and the United States of Money. It’s not that the juicy subject matter is a gamble. Rather, Alex Gibney’s documentary exposé of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff comes up ten years late and a few dollars—and some sense—short.

Though the issue of campaign financing is as topical as ever—especially in light of this year's controversial Supreme Court decision—jaded Americans perhaps will want to forget all about Abramoff’s sleazy saga. The onetime “King of K Street” and “The Man Who Bought Washington,” Abramoff was convicted in 2006 on fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy charges. The surrounding investigation netted such Republican big fish House as Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned under pressure in 2006, and Ohio Rep. Bob (“Freedom Fries”) Ney, who served time in prison.

Whereas Gibney’s Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) came up a winner, Casino Jack gets bogged down in a seemingly endless stream of details and talking-head cameos. Abramoff’s biography reads like something out of a cheap spy novel—or Hollywood’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Take your pick of his schizoid incarnations: movie producer, ultra-orthodox Jew, free-market fanatic, College Republicans chairman, influence peddler, D.C. restaurateur—and unsavory insider in the G.W. Bush administration. Despite Abramoff’s staunch Republican ties, his largess also extended to Democratic congressmen, including Rhode Island’s Patrick Kennedy.

But it was greed and blind ambition, not politics, which ultimately motivated Abramoff. It would lead him to bilk tens of millions of dollars from naive Native American tribal leaders who had hired him to lobby for their casinos. In maybe the most brazen of Abramoff’s criminal deeds, he secretly conspired to close one Texas casino, only to coax that same casino to hire him to win its permit back. Chief among Abramoff’s stealth associates in the casino caper was Ralph Reed, the powerful Christian Coalition leader and Time cover boy who, at least publicly, was condemning America's moral decline.

While there’s no doubt that Abramoff is the fall guy (and some say, scapegoat), it’s the American political system that ends up as the biggest loser. First and foremost among Gibney’s persistent themes is the issue of governmental de-regulation in the area of lobbying and campaign financing. You can follow the big money all the way back to Ronald Reagan’s revolutionary 1981 declaration that “Government is the problem.” Even today, an unreformed DeLay (late of Dancing with the Stars) still insists that “money is free speech.” A less convincing argument is that our current system essentially is one of legalized bribery, and egregiously so with the staggering increase in congressional campaign costs.

By the time Gibney’s narrator recounts Abramoff’s dirty dealings to buy a floating Florida casino (a deal that may have involved a gangland hit), your eyes may begin to glaze over, with fatigue as much as disgust. That debacle would eventually lead to a damning, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Washington Post, Senate hearings and the eventual sinking of Abramoff’s fortunes. Though “Casino Jack” went down with his ship, the vast majority of his congressional cronies are still sailing along, perfectly content to rearrange the deck chairs.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 5/18/10

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