United States of Money
- Rated R
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ccording to mega-documentarian muckraker Alex Gibney, power and money have become one and the same thing in American politics. That is the story behind the story of "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," which details the massive corruption scandal centering on the once powerful and lavishly wealthy lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. The affair's complex tentacles ensnared some 20 members of congress and helped pave the way for the Republican Party's historic defeat in the 2006 congressional elections.
Gibney starts out by focusing on Abramoff as a young conservative. Like his hero, Ronald Reagan, movies seem to have a played a huge role in the conservative lobbyist's mindset and career – they certainly play a large role in the movie about him. A Beverly Hills High jock without much interest in his Jewish heritage, young Abramoff decided to become an Orthodox Jew while watching Norman Jewison's movie version of "Fiddler on the Roof.” (Gibney provides us with Topol's rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" from the film.) Later, a political player and activist on behalf of U.S. involvement in anti-communist insurgencies the world over, he and his brother, Robert, cook up a movie of their own: 1989's "Red Scorpion," a vehicle for action star Dolph Lungren that turned right-wing Angolan strong-man Jonas Savimbi into a saintly George Washington figure.
Gibney's narrative makes clear that Abramoff started out as an idealist and an ideologue, and that the slide from activist, to lobbyist, to blatantly avaricious and corrupt power broker was gradual. Muddying the waters was the fact that Abramoff's political ideology argued quite literally that financial might makes right. It's a variation of the running joke on "The Colbert Report" in which Stephen Colbert assumes that whatever makes the most money must be correct because "the market has spoken." Thus, Abramoff and his cronies believed that purchasing influence from politicians on behalf of their well-paying clients was, after all, a form of free speech. The fact that they could raise huge amounts of cash actually proved their political virtue.
Still, even by the standards of the most ultra-libertarian of political observers, Abramoff's activities eventually become entirely unjustifiable. Among his moral low points, Abramoff shielded sweatshops in the U.S. Marianas islands. These were hellholes where de facto indentured servitude (i.e. slavery) was common and pregnant female employees were, ironically for businesses tied to politicians holding "right to life" views, pressured to obtain abortions. In addition, Abramoff worked with the supposedly anti-gambling fundamentalist Christian political consultant, Ralph Reed, in what amounted to a protection racket which led to the bilking of untold millions from casino-owning Native American tribes. As if that wasn't enough, there was the matter of a none-too-stable casino boat owner whom Abramoff and a partner with apparent Mafia ties, Adam Kidan, squeezed out in a brutal power play. Greek businessman Konstantin Boulis was shot to death in an apparent mob hit in 2001.
Of course, Abramoff went to jail on conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion charges, presumably receiving some portion of his just desserts for corrupting the system and engaging in a complex form of mega-theft. On the other hand, Gibney's documentary makes clear that he believes Abramoff is no free-standing "rotten apple," but a spectacular example of a systemic blight with no clear or readily available solution. Indeed, Gibney makes the point that the Abramoff scandal was relatively small potatoes when compared to the favors purchased from Democratic as well as Republican congresses and Presidential Administrations by lobbyists for Wall Street, the subject of an upcoming Gibney film or two.
It's a bleak outlook and a necessarily complex tale, but this director can't be faulted for relying solely on multiple talking heads to tell his story. "Casino Jack" opens strongly with a spellbinding set piece that makes playful use of Abramoff's suggestion that Gibney should give up documentaries and make more lucrative action films. Later on, Gibney and his post-production effects team go to town in a very funny and lively sequence combining footage of racquetball games with CGI text and readings from hugely incriminating, embarrassingly jockish e-mails with possible homoerotic overtones sent between Abramoff and business partner/racquetball buddy Michael Scanlon, in which they egg each other on as they rip-off their hapless clients. As performed by off-camera talent Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd, lines like "I love this bitch talk, you punk ass bitch" are comic gold.
Still, this is a film with a partially absentee star. Jack Abramoff appears frequently, but only through archival footage. In his place, Alex Gibney has assembled some rather remarkable interviews with other key players, including former House Majority Leader-turned "Dancing with the Stars" contestant Tom Delay, who is unrepentant and openly advocates for an even more money-based system than we currently have. Equally notable is the surprisingly candid and sympathetic former Ohio congressman, Bob Ney, the only figure in the scandal other than Abramoff to actually do jail time. Neil Volz, who left Ney's employ to join Abramoff's team, is another figure who seems sincerely sorry for his part in the scandal. Comic relief is provided by David Grosh, an apparently more-or-less honest lifeguard who found himself running a conservative think tank/money laundering operation on behalf of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Providing often witty commentary are hard-right Orange County California congressman Dana Rohrbacher, liberal author and former conservative Thomas Frank (“The Wrecking Crew”), and ethics watchdog Melanie Sloan.
At two hours, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" feels long and can be a tough slog. Nevertheless, this is the first time the narrative has been assembled on film in such a complete fashion. Moreover, as thoughtful reportage, this is a hugely admirable work, even if it is somewhat less than hugely entertaining. The problem may be Gibney's entirely justifiable decision to complete the film using voices other than Abramoff's as the core of the film. There is obviously no guarantee that Abramoff would have ever chosen to come forward on camera, and Gibney has instead accumulated some remarkable interviews, particularly with Bob Ney and Neil Volz. Still, for me at least, the film lacks a compelling focal point.
I'd hate to discourage anyone from seeing "Casino Jack," particularly those who haven't followed the Abramoff story up to now. Gibney's dispassionate, highly factual approach makes him, among muckraking left-of-center documentarians, the anti-Michael Moore as he powerfully and without exaggeration makes the point that the marriage of money and politics seriously threatens the soul of our democracy. However, unlike his Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and his Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is often a chore to keep up with. I feel a bit like a Philistine complaining that a documentary this serious and lively is not as entertaining as it could be. However, if a political junkie like me finds his attention wandering, how will others react?