‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money’ Infuriates While it Entertains

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CHICAGO – There’s a memorable moment in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” in which one of director Alex Gibney’s interview subjects compares an Enron press conference to the musical sequence in “Chicago,” where a slickly manipulative lawyer has all of the city’s reporters on marionette strings.

I couldn’t help being reminded of another catchy “Chicago” show tune while watching Gibney’s latest so-infuriating-it’s-entertaining documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s the song belted out by Matron Mama Morton, who boasts, “Ask any of the chickies in my pen/They’ll tell you I’m the biggest mother hen/I love ‘em all and all of them love me/Because the system works, the system called/RE-CI-PRO-CI-TY.” I suggest that Gibney find a place for this number on his director’s cut. These lyrics succinctly describe the mentality of former megalobbyist Jack Abramoff, who embodies everything that is wrong with American politics today.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Photo credit: Magnolia

Abramoff’s descent into jaw-dropping corruption is truly a story for the ages, and Gibney milks it for all it’s worth. We see Abramoff’s early years as a young boy so dazzled by the cinema that he converted to Conservative Judaism after seeing “Fiddler on the Roof.” He memorized the opening monologue from “Patton” with fellow College Republicans Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, who substituted the word “Nazi” with “Democrat.” Abramoff would later try his hand at filmmaking by producing 1989’s anti-Communist action film, “Red Scorpion,” with Scandinavian star Dolph Lundgren doing a laughably awful Schwarzenegger impression.

Not only does Gibney supply some priceless clips of “Scorpion,” but he also captures the theatrical spirit of a man who largely seemed to have his head in the clouds. With a self-righteousness to match his towering ego, Abramoff convinced himself that he could get away with anything simply because he’s one of the “good guys.” When he wore a villainous fedora and trench coat to the court hearing that would land him in prison, it was Abramoff’s way of saying that Congress had cast him as the “bad guy,” while neglecting to share responsibility in the government’s sprawling, inherent corruption.

As in “Enron,” Gibney demonstrates his gift at coherently illustrating a seemingly incomprehensible web of crime. He lays out, step by step, how Abramoff rose to his formidable position in the U.S. government, just as the cost of campaigns were going through the roof. Abramoff mastered the lobbying and campaign finance systems that Illinois senator Peter Fitzgerald refers to as, “legalized bribery,” in which campaign contributions are exchanged for political favors.

The charismatic lobbyist built a huge client base by selling access to Texas Representative Tom DeLay, who shared Abramoff’s belief that there should be no limit on the amount of money flowing through Washington. DeLay’s goal to “exterminate” government regulation is amusingly foreshadowed by Gibney, who flashes back to the short-lived House Majority Leader’s previous job as a pest controller. Though Gibney’s visits with the imprisoned Abramoff weren’t allowed to be filmed, he did score some surprising on-camera interviews with major players in the scandal, including DeLay, Ohio congressman Bob Ney, and Ney’s Chief of Staff Neil Volz, who are all in varying states of denial.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Photo credit: Magnolia

Though Abramoff and his college buddies did technically achieve their dreams of rebuilding Washington, their shrinking of “big government” only left room for people who can pay to play. It’s astonishing to see how Abramoff managed to dupe everyone from Malaysian dictators to Delaware lifeguards in his various money-making schemes. It’s tempting for a review of “Casino Jack” to simply turn into a highlight reel of Abramoff’s various felonies, so I’ll just offer a sampling.

One of the film’s most disturbing segments focuses on a Chinese sweatshop in the Northern Marianas Islands which Abramoff and DeLay both supported (and received money from). Though the sweatshop doesn’t follow U.S. labor laws, and is run by what are essentially indentured servants, its products are still manufactured with a label stating, “Made in the U.S.A.” Abramoff’s clients also included various Native American casino owners whom he defrauded out of millions. In his email correspondence with associate Michael Scanlon, the partners-in-crime freely express their unbridled arrogance, while claiming that if their Indian clients don’t cooperate, they better prepare for “another trail of tears.”

Such lines produce the same type of appalled laughter that “Enron” earned by playing foul-mouthed phone calls between crooked employees (in “Casino Jack,” Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd do the honors). This film certainly cements Gibney’s reputation as one of our finest and most important muckraking documentarians, though it’s not quite the equal of his previous masterworks, which include the must-see Oscar-winner “Taxi to the Dark Side.” “Casino Jack” is often so maddening and so overflowing with information, that you may find yourself wanting to pause it for a coffee break. There’s also a rather annoying epilogue in which the filmmaker seems to infer that we’re all complicit in this mess because we’d ultimately like to be at the top of the economic food chain (a desire certainly not wished by all Americans). But those are mere quibbles in the face of such a superlative achievement. If this film doesn’t get your blood boiling, and motivated to fight for reform, then you’re politically and socially dead.

‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money’ features Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Adam Kidan, Ralph Reed, Michael Scanlon, Neil Volz, Susan Schmidt, Dave Grosh and Grover Norquist. It was written and directed by Alex Gibney. It opened on May 14th at local theaters. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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