How do you tell the story of disgraced conservative superlobbyist Jack Abramoff? Because the story of Jack Abramoff is also the story of Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, and myriad other associates and cronies who at best were party to his sleazy influence-peddling and at worst fellow perpetrators in bribery and fraud. And above all, it’s the story of a corrupt Washington culture where K Street pirates use government as an organ for personal enrichment, hopelessly compromising a representative democracy that’s supposed to be working for the people. Just the title of Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack And The United States Of Money suggests the absurd scope of the Abramoff scandal, which has more tentacles than a stack of Japanese demon-rape comics. Gibney has enough material for a dozen movies here, but his attempt at an overview, however unwieldy, paints one hell of a nauseating picture.
Along with conservative warriors like Norquist and Reed, Abramoff was part of a wave of College Republican leaders galvanized by the Reagan Revolution and determined to bring new muscle to their anti-tax, anti-Communist, anti-regulatory ideology. Though Abramoff took a long detour to pursue a career in Hollywood—a decade-long stretch that bore its sole fruit in the dismal 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion—he surfaced in Washington in time for the 1995 Republican takeover of Congress, where he became a lobbyist and forged close partnerships with power brokers like House Majority leader DeLay. Casino Jack looks at Abramoff’s role (along with Reed, Norquist, and DeLay communications director Michael Scanlon) in the fraudulent scheme to bilk obscene lobbying fees out of Indian casinos. But that’s just the tip of an iceberg that includes a horrific attempt to turn Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands into a Petri dish of unbridled capitalism and some unsavory business surrounding the sale of SunCruz Casinos.
With documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Taxi To The Dark Side, and now Casino Jack, Gibney combines agitprop with a quasi-journalistic approach that fuses original interviews and reporting with a more basic summary of what’s already known. His films are rarely revelatory in and of themselves, but they’re invaluable for making sense of stories too complex for cable or even print outlets to encapsulate. Casino Jack wends through a dense thicket of information— not always gracefully—and convincingly pegs Abramoff as part of a larger lobbying scandal, one that’s still (and for the foreseeable future) ongoing.