Photo by Brian Giandelone
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (R)
3 out of 4 stars
When compared to the thoroughly obscene thievery of Bernie Madoff or the former executives at Enron, the financial malfeasance of Jack Abramoff is relatively small potatoes. A man with fearless moxie and a stratospheric ego, Abramoff did what every other lobbyist in U.S. history has done inside the Capital Dome since the dawn of the republic. He introduced captains of industry to influential lawmakers in exchange for money.
While loathsome and abhorrent to most of us, what Abramoff did for a living (for a while at least) wasn't technically illegal and he might have ridden off into a golden sunset if he hadn't gotten stupid, greedy, snarky and drunk with power. It was after his ill-advised attempt to mercilessly squeeze a number of Native American casino owners that his position as wheeler-dealer imploded and his idyllic lifestyle instantly evaporated.
Riding in on the wave of the Reagan revolution, Abramoff quickly established himself as a major player by leading a nation-wide contingency of tunnel-vision college students demanding a return to far-right conservatism after the end of the Carter administration. Working closely with Georgia's Christian Coalition, fire-breathing mouthpiece Ralph Reed, the Jewish Abramoff proved to be an expert glad-hander and consummate schmoozer who could, as one of the interviewees proclaims, "talk a dog off of a meat truck."
In tone, content and pace, the film bears more than a stylistic resemblance to "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" which makes sense as both were directed with crackling fervor by Alex Gibney. Avoiding the blowhard, circus/sideshow sensationalism of Michael Moore and the stagy, docudrama seriousness of Errol Morris, Gibney strikes a comfy middle ground with his material and accomplishes the most important of tasks for any documentarian: to remain neutral.
Recognizing that neutral doesn't have to mean boring or static, Gibney takes a cue from Martin Scorsese and top-loads his films with classic rock and pop songs that not only brilliantly underscore specific passages but also adds biting humor and acidic sarcasm. Granted, it's not all that hard to find primo farce in Abramoff's story; both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert milked the Abramoff scandal for what seemed like years on their respective fake news TV shows.
Clocking in just a couple minutes shy of two hours, Gibney's film suffers slightly not from being too long but rather because it is simply overstuffed and dense. Gibney crams a lot of sometimes marginal minutiae into the film which isn't bad per se, but given the rapid pace and live-action style of the editing, viewers are forced to absorb a lot and it almost makes it a chore to watch.
It goes without saying this should be required viewing for any political junkie or history buff, but if you're on the fence you can probably wait for the DVD or the next Abramoff movie. Set for release this October, the shorter-titled drama "Casino Jack" stars Kevin Spacey as Abramoff and Kelly Preston as his wife Pam. (Magnolia)