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Casino Jack and the United States of Money

on May 12, 2010 by Pete Hammond
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casinojackreview.pngCasino Jack chronicles the rise and downfall of disgraced, superstar, Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Prolific Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side, Enron The Smartest Guys In The Room) has crafted a fascinating, strangely funny and remarkable film about events so incredible you'll likely have a hard time believing what you see onscreen. Whether or not audiences will want to go back and visit all the scandalous transgressions from the heart of the George W. Bush administration is another question, but Gibney presents it all in such irresistible, entertaining fashion that upscale viewers may be compelled to check it out. Best bet is down the line on DVD and cable.

Traversing territory similar to his Enron doc, Gibney gets lots of mileage following the trail of his Casino Jack. A one time Hollywood producer, Abramoff switched to politics only to become a superstar lobbyist. His corrupt tactics became notorious and led to one of the biggest political scandals in Washington history-many resignations were forced due to his actions, including that of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a handful those who did prison time, notably Congressman Bob Ney, Ney's former Chief of Staff Neil Volz and Abramoff associate Adam Kidan. All of the above contributed wide-ranging interviews with Gibney. The one piece of the puzzle unfortunately missing is Abramoff, who is still serving out a four-year sentence and not allowed to participate in the film, though Gibney did visit with him on at least five different occasions.

It would have been nice to have a first-hand account from the man himself, but the film does a crackerjack job detailing his transgressions, from his involvement in a mob-connected Florida business transaction to the massively lucrative sale of a bill of goods for Native American Tribes and their burgeoning casino ventures. What started out as business as usual in D.C. quickly turned into a massive influence-peddling scandal that had the White House (not implicated) running for cover and claiming We Don't Know Jack!

In January 2006 Abramoff pled guilty to fraud charges, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He gets out of prison in June, reportedly a changed man. His story not only led to Gibney's doc but also to a narrative version directed by George Hickenlooper starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff, which is due for release this fall.

Most importantly, Gibney's work here goes well beyond one man's deeds and exposes the shameless nature of doing business and getting campaigns financed. Using Abramoff, the filmmaker shows how broken this system is and questions whether it can ever be fixed, especially when interviewees like DeLay flatly do not apologize for cozying up to lobbyists and in fact weirdly endorse the idea that this kind of under-the-table money flow is important to the very nature of Congress.

To keep this from getting too convoluted and immersed in the minutia of politics, Gibney smartly inserts clips from classics like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington to represent an American ideal that perhaps only existed in the movies. He also inserts a good bit of ironic humor including a closing sequence detailing the fallen De Lay's post-Congress stint on Dancing With The Stars.

You can't make this stuff up, folks. Gibney does a fine job laying it out on the table for what it is.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director/Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood and Zena Barakat
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R for some language
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: May 7 ltd.

 

Tags: Zena Barakat, Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney
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