‘Casino Jack’ Deals Up Vivid Story of Power, Greed

Posted May 5, 2010 at 5:44pm

“Casino Jack and the United States of Money” tells the sordid tale of Jack Abramoff and how he used his influence in Washington to play American Indian tribes against each other, all in the name of power and greed.

Alex Gibney’s newest documentary tells about the rise and fall of Abramoff, one of Washington’s most powerful nonelected players. The film jumps from D.C. to California to the Northern Mariana Islands to re-create the tale of the former Washington super-lobbyist.

Viewers of Gibney’s other films, including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” will find “Casino Jack” as well-researched
and thoroughly planned as his earlier works.

That research reveals Abramoff’s rise through the College Republicans, the myriad of e-mails playing his clients off each other and such gems as scenes from Abramoff’s attempt at filmmaking, “Red Scorpion,” an anti-communist, “Terminator”-like action flick.

“Casino Jack” leaves no stone unturned in uncovering who the real Abramoff is. His early days at Beverly Hills High School, detailing his desire to become an orthodox Jew and his ability to marry religion and politics, are all well-documented.

Abramoff’s college years were very formative in shaping who he would become and those he came into contact with during that time — including former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who provides a great Ronald Reagan impression — are featured to an often-nauseating extent. Viewers will be left wanting to move on to the next chapter in Abramoff’s life after hearing seemingly every detail of his pre-lobbying time.

The best parts of the film are the interviews with former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz.

Ney served 17 months in prison, and Volz, who left Ney’s office to work for Abramoff, served two years of probation for their roles in the corruption scandal that centered on Abramoff, who Volz says “could sweet talk a dog off a meat truck.”

The downfall of Abramoff and those acting in conjunction with him, including those who attended the infamous golfing trip to St. Andrews, Scotland, is no surprise to viewers, but what is surprising is the contrition displayed by some of those tangled in his web of deceit.

Ney and Volz both lament the role that money plays in politics and the constant need to raise, spend and donate cash to other candidates in order to move up the leadership ranks.

Despite the thorough job providing Abramoff’s back story and getting Ney and Volz to tell their stories, at the end of the day, “Casino Jack” is just another iteration of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and little that Gibney does moves the story past what is already known about the subject.

The film seems to go out of its way to create a nexus between Abramoff working with the Republican Party and all that is wrong in the world.

Workers being duped into jobs with poor living standards in the Northern Marina Islands? Well, that’s Abramoff’s fault because he and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) wanted to exploit the country’s labor loopholes to avoid paying minimum wage.

A Medicare prescription drug bill that provides insurance through private insurers rather than within the Medicare program? It’s Abramoff’s fault because he and former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) were in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. (Never mind that the Democrats’ health care bill has very similar elements.)

You get the idea.

Casual consumers of politics may get more out of the film’s depiction of the role that lobbyists play in the business, and that is clearly whom Gibney gears his film toward.

For the more politically inclined, the film takes too long to get where it needs to go and, by the end, viewers will be almost exasperated by what’s left of their government in Abramoff’s wake.