In retrospect it's ironic that the motto of the hip Washington D.C. restaurant managed by Jack Abramoff promised “liberal portions in a conservative setting,” since essentially that's been the motto of his life as well in taking liberal portions of money that belonged to others (including readers) under the guise of his conservative setting.
Wildly charismatic and overwhelmingly passionate, Abramoff was as successful as he was for the simple reason that he was just that good at being bad, willing to go that many extra miles past the line lobbyists should not cross to get what he wanted.
Yet the tragic thing is, he never really did get what he wanted which was the type of life he read about on the pages of the spy novels he cherished since what he failed to realize is that in fiction, you can escape the rules whereas in reality, the rules and the law will inevitably catch up with his cloak and dagger existence.
And since he loved spy novels and films – going so far as to practice Judaism after seeing Fiddler on the Roof as a kid before he became a Born Again Christian – it's only fitting that someone should tell his “ridiculous truth is much stranger than dreamed up political fiction” story on film, which is exactly what Oscar winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) has done in this richly entertaining yet extremely informative documentary.
Releasing in May from Magnolia Pictures, Casino Jack and the United States of Money focuses on all the various incarnations and turns that Abramoff has undergone from President of the College Republicans to movie producer to lobbyist to his involvement in overseas sweatshops, a connection to a mafia style killing and the Enron worthy way he ripped off Indian casinos.
The movie employs pop culture throughout from just the right musical cue to really drive home his thesis or add an ironic subtextual counterpoint to certain scenes. And Gibney's stellar achievement is especially intriguing since, although he turns his lens on just one man, the story of Jack Abramoff and his “Gimme Five” associates that reached into the realm of the Bush Administration is so richly complicated that it took the download and reread of the extensive production notes and background information to fully grasp all of the data he was hoping to convey in this jam-packed feature.
Like a cat with nine lives, it seems that politically and professionally, Abramoff lived enough lives to comprise an entire litter of kittens and unfortunately we get a little lost at times in between the major scandals like the Northern Marianas Islands 21st century version of slave labor all for green and the “Made in the USA” label and his Indian casino fraud.
With the benefit of so many first person accounts, some of which were made possible by a Nightline employee who served as a co-producer, Gibney uses Jack Abramoff's story as an allegory to illustrate the terrifying fact that this is merely one man who is set to leave incarceration in 2010 and that the lobbying game along with all of his associates and others not on our radar yet are still waiting using politicians as pawns to influence policy any way that can benefit them financially.
With the added blindspot of their fierce religious nature and the belief that they can do no wrong if they think they're fighting for what is holy and right (even when it seems like blasphemy for people to deign to decide what a higher power would want in the first place), Gibney's work serves as a warning call to voters that business as usual will only promise more lobbying Abramoffs in Washington and fewer and fewer Mr. Smiths as seen in the quintessential Capra classic.
Despite some of the confusion, which I'm hoping will either persuade viewers to take a second look and/or preferably augment the experience with more research on their own, Casino Jack and the United States of Money remains not just timely since we're reminded how much is spent on lobbying each and every year instead of things that could benefit citizens but also that it's our duty to remain engaged and aware of just how liberal of portions our members of congress are treating themselves to in the money hungry setting of Washington D.C.
Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I viewed an online press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.