Be forewarned: Casino Jack and the United States of Money could very well be bad for your health. In spite of its tone—Alex Gibney’s latest political documentary is both deceptively glib and undeniably entertaining—the film is so infuriating and disheartening that you can practically feel your blood pressure rise as your spirit sinks. By the time the credits roll after two dizzying hours of the sort of back-room wheeling and dealing that would make Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko look like a put-upon bake-sale organizer, you can’t help wondering if Casino Jack is the story of one man’s fall, or an entire nation’s.
That is, of course, the point. Though Gibney places disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff squarely in his crosshairs, his target is really the pay-to-play system that passes for policymaking in today’s Washington. The scope of the film is huge, spanning from the Nixon years to present day, from Hollywood movie studios and K Street think tanks to Saipan sweatshops and Nicaraguan battlefields. Its cast of characters is just as expansive; the Abramoff scandals (of which there were many) touched George W. Bush, bumped into John McCain, grazed former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, and rubbed themselves all over former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay; other players include Karl Rove, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, and conservative activist Grover Norquist.
At the center of it all is Abramoff, a one-time Hollywood producer who traded his strange brand of right-wing idealism for, well, whatever he could get for it. After his aggressive takeover of the College Republican National Committee in the 1980s, Abramoff eventually came to realize that power and influence were commodities, and that they could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Casino Jack traces Abramoff’s activities over several decades, culminating in the wide-reaching scandals that came to a collective head in 2006, when the lobbyist pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion. It’s a truly bizarre web of power-brokerage that stretches from Nicaraguan Contras to Angolan warlords as Abramoff and his colleagues travel across the globe to promote their agenda. Mostly, though, it’s all about making money, and that’s what Abramoff and his buddies did best.
Gibney, who scored an Academy Award nomination for 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room before taking home Oscar gold in 2008 for his devastating torture exposé, Taxi to the Dark Side, is equal parts storyteller and documentarian. While Michael Moore has marginalized himself to the point of irrelevance, Gibney is careful to avoid the red-faced histrionics that have relegated Moore to his “preaching to the choir” status. Gibney is no less of a polemicist, but he presents carefully selected facts in a clear-headed, rational manner. He also knows how to keep the story moving along, and how to dole out information in a way that always keeps the viewer wanting more. Even if you don’t agree with his politics, it’s hard to avoid being swept up in a well-told tale; and Casino Jack is, without a doubt, one hell of a story.
Ironically, the movie’s ambition is almost its undoing. The film’s focus is just too broad; though Gibney is remarkably adept at presenting facts and, more importantly, drawing the lines that connect them, it’s impossible to analyze and indict the entire practice of lobbying in two hours. He ultimately sacrifices emotional quality for cerebral quantity—we’re often too busy keeping up with the whirlwind presentation of information to really consider the ramifications of any particular scandal. In the end, though, Gibney gets the point across. The final few minutes of Casino Jack manage to pull everything together in a singularly devastating fashion. If the climax is Abramoff’s fall from grace, the denouement is Washington’s almost universal indifference. By the end of the film, the only justice that has been meted out is of the purely token sort: a few paltry prison sentences (17 months for Ney, a whopping four years for Abramoff), a handful of forced resignations. Abramoff’s cohorts are quick to blame one another for their wrongdoing, but no one seems to think there’s anything wrong with the system of legalized bribery they exploited.
Casino Jack ends with an image that elicited plenty of laughter a few months ago—a clip of DeLay’s embarrassing turn on Dancing with the Stars—but there’s nothing funny about it this time around.