Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
Casino Jack can replace all those civics lessons on how a bill becomes a law in Washington, D.C. And this is a comedy.
The rise, reign, and fall of Jack Abramoff, the king of the lobbyists during the Clinton and Bush administrations, were just detailed in Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Abramoff could only be glimpsed in photos and news coverage there because he has been in Federal prison for several years. Here, a dynamic Kevin Spacey gives us the full razzle dazzle of a flamboyant, complex idealist-turned-wheeler dealer aggressively flimflamming his way through the glad-handing corridors of power. Spacey has played slime balls before—the movie producer in George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994), embodying David Mamet’s real-estate salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and more—but this is a much more complex villain with a heart, albeit with a big hat and coat and a penchant for funny impersonations. Abramoff has a comfortably bland home life, a devoted pretty blonde wife, Pam (Kelly Preston), a large brood of kids, and grandiose “If I Were A Rich Man”-like dreams of Jewish philanthropy.
The late director George Hickenlooper—who made biographies before, the feature film Factory Girl (2007) and the 2003 documentary Mayor of Sunset Strip—and scripter Norman Snider conducted extensive research on the case, including several jailhouse interviews with Abramoff. This riotously sympathetic portrait zooms in on when Abramoff was frantically greasing wheels that were going off the rails. A constellation of colorful ethically challenged cohorts spin by on a merry-go-round built on cash for favors. Barry Pepper is smoothly slick as Abramoff’s flashier partner Michael Scanlon, who cheerfully entertains clients around the world while freely spending his cut. It’s not fiction, however, that his cheating on his fiancée, Emily Miller (Rachelle Lefevre), drove her to snitch to the authorities in revenge. Nor is it fictitious that the couple first met working in the office of former Majority Leader Congressman Tom DeLay (a spot-on Spencer Garrett), who is seen frequently here as a primary recipient of the lobbyists’ largesse.
Just as Steven Soderbergh effectively used comedians playing straight roles in an absurd reality in last year’s The Informant!, Jon Lovitz is hilariously serious as the sleazy entrepreneur, Adam Kidan. A contact from Abramoff’s adventuresome pre-D.C. activities, Kidan’s brought in to front a deal for a floating Florida casino, and he becomes connected to a vengeful gangster, played by the masterful Maury Chaykin in one of his last roles. An ensuing gangland killing will reverberate back to Abramoff. (That is also not fiction.)
The explanation of Abramoff’’s maneuvers on behalf of textile factories in the Mariana Islands—lobbying for favorable import laws in exchange for very large campaign contributions—rolls by too quickly. But the unfunny impact of his milking of millions of dollars from trusting Indian tribes for favorable casino deals (in cohoots with Ralph Reed’s Christian organizations) is given gravitas through Graham Greene’s performance as a persistent protestor.
Democrat and Republican beneficiaries only back pedal when the
staggering scale of his shell games leaks out. The
over-emphasis on DeLay and ex-Congressman Robert Ney of Ohio as the bag
men—the most egregious ones who were convicted—is given some systemic
balance in an almost musical monologue climax
in a Congressional hearing before Senator John McCain that summarizes some savage
truths, calling in doubt the denunciation of Abramoff as a lone rotten
apple. Next to the
closing credits is the real footage of the moment that catapulted
career, his sycophantic introduction of DeLay to the National College
Republicans in 1981. When millions of dollars currently flow through the
U.S. Capitol for political campaigns, these truths will continue to be
Nora Lee Mandel