By Scott Weinberg (reprinted from 1/25/10 -- Sundance Film Festival)
At first I thought I was the wrong person to cover this film. You can deride me for keeping my head buried in the sand on some issues, but I wouldn't know a Jack Abramoff from a Beef Stroganoff. Prior to sitting down with Alex Gibney's colorfully-titled documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, all I knew of Abramoff was A) he was once a powerful Republican politician who B) stole a ton of money from a wide variety of people and C) got sent off to jail for his nefarious activities.
Maybe it's because finance and politics bore me like nobody's business, or perhaps it's just that I like movies a little bit more than I do the daily newspaper -- but hey, it's a good thing there are filmmakers like Alex Gibney out there. Because after sitting through the long-but-fascinating Casino Jack, I feel like marching on something! How dare these bastards rape and exploit and ... yeah, my outrage is a few years late, I know. But at least we have a solid new flick that will stand for the record.
As the film clearly indicates, Jack Abramoff was a powerfully slick lobbyist who hatched all sorts of schemes, but his main gimmick was to hook special interests up with the politicians who could help them out ... oh, and rake in untold millions while A) wiping out Native American casinos, B) directly supporting slave labor, and C) pissing all over the U.S. Constitution. Of course the sleazy activities of Abramoff and cohorts like Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Michael Scanlon, and Ralph Reed are all there on record, but it takes a pissed-off (and talented) documentarian to wedge all these outrageous abuses into one two-hour history lesson. (Or if not history, try current events.)
Gibney is a smart filmmaker: he is well-aware that even though these are important stories, they're potentially dry and long-winded ones, too. To keep his Casino Jack chugging along in entertaining fashion, he digs out pertinent clips from films like Patton and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the soundtrack is equally adept at keeping all the financial jargon from becoming too dreary. Plus most of the anecdotes (and there are many) are as juicy and compelling as they are plain-old horrifying.
Employing tons of recent interviews with colleagues and competitors of the presently-incarcerated Abramoff, the film could come off (to some, I suppose) as a left-wing hatchet job -- but it's pretty hard to argue with the most important facts: Abramoff and his chums swindled multiple millions from everyone they could, and they got away with it for a hell of a lot longer than they should have been able to. So while Casino Jack is a colorful but unflinching smack at Jack, it also speaks to something a lot larger than just one gang of crooks: maybe we need to keep a much closer eye on those D.C. lobbyists -- and toss the rotten ones out before they can infect the rest.