Film Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Alex Gibney's new documentary on how Jack Abramoff sleazed his way to power is not just an incisive look at an insurgent branch of the conservative movement, but a strong return to form.

Jack Abramoff, the onetime powerhouse of the Republican congressional-lobbyist axis now serving time on various corruption-related charges, sent an e-mail to documentarian Alex Gibney, which he includes at the beginning of his film on Abramoff. He asks Gibney: Why bother making the film? "No one watches documentaries. You should make an action movie!" While Gibney partially inserts this communiqué as a jibe at Abramoff's early career (more on that later), it's also a pointed irony. The entire opening section of the film turns out to be a recreation of a mob-style assassination of Gus Boulis, a businessman who sold a casino cruise line to a group that included Abramoff, who was gunned down in Ft. Lauderdale in 2001. There's your action movie.

The body of Casino Jack and the United States of Money (not to be confused with the upcoming feature version starring Kevin Spacey) is an op-ed account, albeit with solid journalistic bona fides, of the rise of Jack Abramoff. While Gibney doesn't seem to want this to be a Robert Greenwald-style partisan pie-throwing—there's a serious effort to make this a more well-rounded effort—he also can't resist playing to the balcony at times; thus the clips from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But the result is closer to the stringent analysis of Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side than his more comic Gonzo.

The portrait of Abramoff that Gibney provides is exploit-heavy, less so on psychology—fortunately, he led enough of an action-packed life for that not to leave the film wanting. A combative, athletic, expansively friendly guy who converted to Orthodox Judaism while watching Fiddler on the Roof (much as his friend Tom DeLay later found Christ while watching a James Dobson video), Abramoff was one of the key players in the 1970s and ’80s who transformed College Republicans into the prime incubator of conservative leaders. As described by What's the Matter With Kansas? author (and former College Republican) Thomas Frank, it was a wonderful way to rebel against the mainstream college liberal ethos. Abramoff and his Young Turk cohorts were decidedly non-stuffy (they liked to quote the opening speech from Patton, replacing "Nazis" with "Democrats," giving Gibney an excuse to toss in another film clip) and unapologetic about wanting to make money, lots of it.

Besides being free-market extremists, they played at being freedom fighters, backing the likes of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. When the reality of Savimbi showed him to be more butcher than anti-Communist hero, Abramoff made his own truth by producing the 1989 Dolph Lundgren action-schlock classic, Red Scorpion (the few seconds of which Gibney includes are highly worth it).

Brash, rebellious, ambitious (and not a little paranoid) conservatives like Abramoff were perfectly situated once Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" representatives came to power. There was the "K Street Project," which pressured lobbying firms to hire conservatives instead of liberals. Majority Whip Tom DeLay—who shows up in the film only to mouth platitudes—helped ram through legislation and keep the favors coming. Abramoff, via his well-situated and multi-faceted lobbying business, raked in the cash. As one interviewee says, to Abramoff and DeLay it must have seemed the perfect free-market solution: Buy and sell politicians to get your policies in place, and become filthy rich in the process.

Once Gibney gets into the truly ugly business of how these favors were traded—particularly in Abramoff's fleecing of Native American tribes, the one-sin-too-far which the press finally caught onto—the giddy exhilaration of the doc’s early sections cools off and viewers are treated to some of the ugliest, most mendacious litanies of political corruption ever put to film. It's a dense maze, but the film navigates it adeptly, leaving most of the editorializing to the very end. After all, when Abramoff is caught writing "Stupid people get wiped out" about his clients, editorializing isn't really that necessary.