"Why would you make a documentary," kingpin lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a.k.a. the Man Who Bought Washington, asked filmmaker Alex Gibney. "No one watches documentaries. You should make an action movie," he advised, which, in the best possible sense, is what Gibney has done.
"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is a film that's always on the move, a smart, lively, thoroughly involving doc about a complex, critical subject. As previous credits such as "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" demonstrated, Gibney is as good as it gets at making complicated political material come alive on screen.
Gibney's latest, coming after the bitter Congressional battles over healthcare and financial reform, couldn't be more timely. It's a film about lobbying, about how interest groups get their voices heard in Washington through a process that former Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald frankly calls "a system of legalized bribery." Is the problem personal or endemic, "Casino Jack" asks; were times more innocent in the past, or were we just naive?
The film shrewdly filters this examination through the character of Abramoff, generally conceded to be the best in the business of connecting money to power. "He could talk a dog off a meat truck," says the candid Neil Volz, a close Abramoff associate. Until the man went too far and ended up pleading guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials and being sentenced to more than five years in prison.
In telling this story of a pervasive influence-peddling and corruption scandal that cut a wide swath through Congress (more than 200 members received Abramoff money), Gibney and his secret weapon, editor and producer Alison Ellwood, have covered the waterfront to convey information and keep us entertained.
In addition to sharp, on-camera interviews with some of the key participants, including former Ohio Congressman Robert Ney, who served 17 months in prison, and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned in the wake of the scandal, the filmmakers have weaved in a wide variety of audio and visual elements.
There are reproduced e-mails, vintage TV-news footage, a soundtrack that includes Aretha Franklin singing a rousing version of "The House That Jack Built" and even clips from movies — one from "Treasure Island" that's on screen as someone says, "Jack found money where no one else thought to look."
Perhaps taking a note from Abramoff (who declined to appear on camera), director Gibney even starts the film with a conventional action sequence that re-creates the mob hit that took out a Florida businessman, a murder that gave investigators their first reason to examine Abramoff and his doings.
"Casino Jack's" story, however, starts much further back, with Abramoff's early career as a power in the College Republicans, where he worked with the likes of Grover Nordquist and Ralph Reed and saw himself as a pre-Tea Party freedom fighter taking on the liberal malaise destroying the country.
After a brief stint as a film producer (the Dolph Lundgren-starring "Red Scorpion") Abramoff returned to Washington in the wake of 1994's Newt Gingrich-led "Republican Revolution." Paradoxically, the film posits, it was the intensity of Abramoff's belief in the conservative goal of markets without limits or controls that led to his illegal activities. Like many before him, he felt rules didn't matter because his goal was so important.
"Casino Jack" goes into great detail on a number of Abramoff's schemes and stratagems, but a few stand out. Because many of his conservative colleagues couldn't be seen taking money from Abramoff's less savory clients, his associate Michael Scanlon set up the American International Center, a multimillion-dollar money-laundering front that was headed by a genial lifeguard Scanlon had met while swimming at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach.
The heart of Abramoff's downfall was the elaborate overbilling schemes he concocted to charge Native American tribes some $45 million to help them protect their legalized gambling operations. The shenanigans that Gibney documents are enough to make your head truly spin.
One of Abramoff's most costly weaknesses was his penchant for putting everything into electronic communication. "What every American should learn from Jack," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, "is 'Don't put it in e-mails.' "
Frankly, there's a whole lot more we could learn from this gripping, unsavory story, and it behooves us to do so before even more damage is done.