Directed by George Hickenlooper
“Why would you want to make a documentary?” Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington lobbyist, once asked a filmmaker looking to profile the Angolan anticommunist rebel Jonas Savimbi. “No one watches documentaries. You should make an action film.” Abramoff himself eventually wrote and produced Red Scorpion (1989), a propaganda action flick with the hulking Dolph Lundgren helping a Savimbi stand-in free his oppressed people from the shackles of communism. But Abramoff’s own advice turned up earlier this year as the opening title of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a muckraking documentary about him by the acclaimed Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).
Casino Jack and the United States of Money ultimately proved Abramoff right: despite sensational reviews, it played on 21 screens nationwide and grossed a measly $176,865. Now we’ll see if the dramatized version of Abramoff’s precipitous fall does any better. The more compactly titled Casino Jack features a wonderfully flamboyant performance from Kevin Spacey as the high-rolling superlobbyist, and his Jack Abramoff is more complicated and charismatic than the conservative heel in Gibney’s nonfiction account. Both movies ask whether Abramoff was truly corrupt or just the scapegoat for a corrupt legislative culture. Yet Casino Jack arrives at a much tougher, and more conservative, vision of American democracy: we may be endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, but privilege is reserved for the most aggressive.
This harsh philosophy emerges in the very first scene, as Abramoff brushes his teeth in an office men’s room and addresses himself in the mirror. “Mediocrity is where most people live,” he observes. “Mediocrity is the elephant in the room. It’s ubiquitous. Mediocrity [is] in your schools, it’s in your dreams, it’s in your family. . . And those of us who know this, those of us who understand the disease of the dull, we do something about it. . . . You’re either a big leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C train.” His own words drive him into a rage: “I will not allow my family to be slaves! I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla!” He gives a little Cagney-style shrug of the shoulders and concludes: “I’m Jack Abramoff. And oh yeah—I work out every day.” To deflate this grandiose soliloquy, Spacey adds a lovely comic touch, pausing to regard himself and then resuming his tooth brushing.
Casino Jack resorts to some awkward shorthand to explain where Abramoff came from and what made him tick, whereas United States of Money devoted 40 minutes to the right-wing renaissance that brought him to power. Raised in Beverly Hills—where he was a high school weight lifter and a movie nut—Abramoff turned to Orthodox Judaism after seeing the screen version of Fiddler on the Roof, and as a student at Brandeis University in the late 70s and early 80s he was national chair of the College Republicans. In those feverish early years of the Reagan Revolution, Abramoff commanded a little army of fire-breathing conservatives that included Ralph Reed (later executive director of the Christian Coalition), Grover Norquist (now president of Americans for Tax Reform), Dana Rohrabacher (just elected to his 12th term as a California congressman), and Karl Rove (longtime political strategist for George W. Bush, now a Fox News commentator). As students, we’re told, they loved the movie Patton and used to recite George C. Scott’s opening monologue, substituting the word Democrat for Nazi.
The Spacey movie picks up the chronology in the late 90s, when Abramoff, as a lobbyist for the prominent law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, was representing the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Exempt from national immigration and labor laws, the Marianas had become a cause celebre for free-market zealots, though their garment factories, staffed largely by Chinese immigrants, were accused of chaining women to their machines, forcibly aborting their pregnancies, and recruiting them for the sex trade. With a minimum-wage bill for the Marianas pending in the House, Abramoff arranged for some 80 congressmen and staffers—including his pal Tom DeLay, the House majority whip—to inspect the factories and enjoy themselves at the island’s resort hotels and golf courses. “Your top-of-the-line stone-washed jeans can stay on sale for $19.99 simply because labor costs in the Marianas remain low,” Abramoff explains in a voice-over. “Lobbying is nothing more than American-style democracy in action. And the more influence we have, the bigger the smiles on our kids’ faces.”
Director George Hickenlooper (who died in October) and screenwriter Norman Snider deserve credit just for turning Abramoff’s byzantine wheeling and dealing into a comprehensible story. As lobbyists for the Coushattas, an Indian tribe that operated a profitable casino in Louisiana, Abramoff and his colleagues at the law firm Greenberg Traurig collected $32 million in fees. mainly to prevent the Jena Indians from opening a rival casino across the border in Texas. Among the beneficiaries of the Coushattas’ cash were Ralph Reed, who helped mobilize Christian opposition to the Jenas while pocketing nearly $6 million from the tribe, and an assortment of congressmen who petitioned the Department of the Interior to kill the Jenas’ casino and then collected five-figure campaign contributions. Another scheme involved Abramoff’s personal acquisition of SunCruz Casinos, a Florida ocean line and gambling enterprise, which he engineered with the help of a fraudulent $23 million wire transfer and a public denunciation of the sellers by Ohio congressman Bob Ney.
The case against Abramoff was so complicated and touched on so many legal gray areas that for most people nothing registered but the endlessly repeated video of him pushing past reporters in a black trenchcoat and a big black hat. Even that moment was more nuanced than it appeared—the head covering was a religious statement for Abramoff—and Casino Jack takes great pains to portray him as a three-dimensional person instead of a cartoon bad guy. E-mails made public by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and widely quoted in the media showed Abramoff referring to Native American clients as “monkeys” and “troglodytes,” yet the movie shows Abramoff using the same terms indiscriminately to hector his children and his staff. One of his pet philanthropies is an academy for Jewish boys he plans to build, and his religious devotion is so genuine that when he’s indicted by the feds, his greatest fear, confided to his wife, is “that I’ve let down God.”
Though Casino Jack never lets its protagonist off the hook for his misdeeds, it does underline the hypocrisy of those politicians who were content to take his money but then ran for cover in February 2004 when the Washington Post began to expose his fleecing of six different Indian tribes. The movie climaxes with Abramoff’s testimony before the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee—whose chairman, John McCain, had seen his 2000 presidential bid derailed by an Abramoff smear campaign. In real life Abramoff took the fifth, refusing to answer the senators’ questions, but in a fantasy sequence here he leaps to his feet and denounces his inquisitors. Told by McCain that he’s out of order, Abramoff mimics Al Pacino’s classic courtroom rant from And Justice for All: “You’re out of order! You’re all out of order! This whole senate hearing is out of order!”
Oddly, Gibney’s documentary also dips into movie lore to sum up the Abramoff scandal and what it says about America: clips of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington evoke a more innocent time when ordinary people could still trust their representatives to speak for them. “The price for a free society, I think, is to be vigilant about our democracy,” says Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. “They were only able to be influenced by Jack Abramoff and take advantage of the money he was offering because we let them.” Casino Jack makes essentially the same point but comes at it from the opposite direction, with an incarcerated Abramoff plotting his next move and reminding us, “I’m Jack Abramoff—and I work out every day.” Earlier this month Abramoff completed his four-year sentence for fraud, corruption, and conspiracy (the last six months of it in a work release program, at a kosher pizzeria in Baltimore), and now he’s a free man. As any movie fan can tell you, that’s how the sequel usually begins.