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Jack Abramoff in CASINO JACK AND THE UNITES STATES OF MONEY (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

Written & Directed by Alex Gibney 
Produced by Gibney, Alison Ellwood & Zena Barakat
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 120 min. Rated R  

Casino Jack and the United States of Money dissects the global tentacles of the complicated campaign-cash-for-political-favors scandal that radiated from “King of the Lobbyists,” Jack Abramoff, during his decade-long reign in Washington, D.C. Writer/director Alex Gibney goes back and beyond following the money to place Abramoff squarely within an ideological framework where unfettered capitalism intersected with laissez-faire government.

Though the opening reenactment of the assassination of a casino ship owner in downtown Ft. Lauderdale seems inflammatory, the local prosecutors’ investigation into a Greek tycoon’s business affairs was the surprising crack that eventually opened the floodgates about the slush money Abramoff brought to Congress from sources as disparate as Pacific islands’ factory owners and Native American tribes. Gibney traces Abramoff’s biography starting from his youthful rise in 1981 to national chairman of the College Republicans, which cemented his connections to inflammatory ideologues Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist before they later became his bagmen, laundering exorbitant lobbying fees and campaign contributions through their non-profit organizations.

Gibney entertainingly prevents viewers from getting the usual MIGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) from C-Span clips. He includes extended excerpts of the charming Abramoff’s flamboyant, even absurd, right-wing adventures before he hit on winning friends and influencing people for profit. There’s his 1985 international summit of thuggish freedom fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, and his fling as a movie writer/producer with Red Scorpion (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren as a Russian Rambo converted to fervent anti-Communism.

Once Abramoff returned to D.C. as a lobbyist with the Republicans’ takeover of Congress in 1994, Gibney works through a very convoluted chart to illustrate Abramoff’s connections, from Congress to a huge cast of shady characters (and a few lone muckrakers who are interviewed). Like in his Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney doesn’t uncover new information (The Washington Post received the first tips to break the story, and several journalists who have written books about the scandal are talking heads here), but he usefully ties all the far-flung pieces together to more comprehensibly show Abramoff’s consistent pattern of corrupt operations. While he emphasizes how anti-regulatory sympathies opened Republican legislators’ doors, he points out that Democrats also received about a third of Abramoff’s and his clients’ largesse.

Even with post-Sundance Festival cuts, there is still far too much of Gibney’s narration of assertions, but his interviews with defensive and fairly unrepentant insiders who were brought down by the scandal, particularly former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (most recently of Dancing with the Stars) and ex-Congressman (and ex-prisoner) Robert Ney of Ohio are revealing. Ney’s staffer-turned-lobbyist Neil Volz is one of the more sympathetic figures for searching his soul to identify the point at which he crossed over to the dark side without realizing that his ethics meter was broken (he cooperated with prosecutors). Others shrug that they were just in over their heads for their own self-interest—Saipan legislators who allowed factories to have indentured servitude conditions and tribal chiefs who wrote checks in the millions to keep their casinos open.

Gibney insistently points out that various Congressional committees, particularly hearings chaired by Senator John McCain, buried most of the systemic criticisms to make it seem as if Abramoff was the lone rotten apple in the barrel. The media maw was diverted by the most salacious, personal elements of his hubris, as in the publicly released profane celebrations of greed and client manipulation in the e-mail exchanges between Abramoff and his flashier partner, Michael Scanlon, voiced here by Stanley Tucci as Abramoff and Paul Rudd as Scanlon. (Kevin Spacey will be Abramoff and Barry Pepper will portray Scanlon in George Hickenlooper’s feature film to be released this fall.) Once the pilloried participants pled guilty, other lobbyists learned to more quietly continue the endemic culture of campaign finance for favors.

There’s a discouraging feeling of the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same surfeit here. (Anyone other than history buffs remember Teapot Dome? Koreagate?) Unfortunately, Gibney gets a bit off course by just mentioning in passing the Supreme Court’s dismissal of campaign finance restrictions after shifting his focus to the financial crisis and how lobbying deters reform legislation. But it’s the money flowing to support ever more expensive elections that have morphed the Capitol dome into a vaulted casino roof. Nora Lee Mandel
May 7, 2010



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