Filmmaker Alex Gibney –stepson of the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin – is one of our best muckrakers in film. He's better than Michael Moore, whose ideological rigidity births tales that, while entertaining, hang on black-and-white.
Gibney, on the other hand, isn't afraid of pointing out how even the so-called good guys have flaws. That quality enhances Gibney's credibility, though some will still unbelievably suggest that his drive to expose free-market corruption somehow equals anti-Americanism.
Jack Abramoff, currently in prison for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, is, superficially, the subject of this two-hour documentary, now in theaters. And while Abramoff – the fast-dealing, self-assured, too-smart-for-his-own-good lobbyist – is the centerpiece, he's not really the most interesting, or even the most critical, component to Gibney's story.
True, "Casino Jack" covers manyof Abramoff's outlandish schemes involving tribal lands and casinos, Saipan sweatshops, dummy corporations, casino cruise ships, golfing trips to St. Andrews and more.
But ultimately, Gibney is less interested in the individual and more interested in the system that enables him. As one interviewee says, it's not as if the trail of corruption in U.S. politics began and ended with Abramoff;he's just a poster boy.
Gibney himself relies on the work of good investigative journalism, like that done by Washington Post reporters and others who tracked Abramoff and began getting leaks from other lobbyists outsmarted or out-corrupted by Abramoff, who himself is never interviewed.
But there's plenty of material to document Casino Jack's house of cards, which he apparently started stacking while part of the College Republicans.
The sequence detailing Abramoff's involvement in that group – and his associations with Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove and others – is perhaps the weirdest piece of the documentary.
Gibney employs ample archival material – news clips, congressional testimonies, photographs, e-mails, in-house videos – to tell the tale of how that young group fancied themselves "freedom fighters" in the 1980s.
They were against communism and for free markets. And though Abramoff considered himself an Orthodox Jew, many of his associates lived on the Religious Right.Gibney really goes after Ralph Reed, framing the smiling, baby-faced conservative Christian against blue skies, white steeples and falling money.
"Casino Jack" may run a tad long, but Gibney's style is engaging. He imports clips from several classic movies, including "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,""Fiddler on the Roof" and "Patton."
The device is apropos because Abramoff, before lobbying, was producing. See "Red Scorpion" starring Dolph Lundgren. Actually, don't. Just know that it featured explosions and dead communists.
So that was one way to preserve free markets – fight communism on film. Another way was to oppose regulation of those markets, and that's what led Abramoff to associate with Tom DeLay, who actually sat for an interview for this film.
DeLay's connection to Enron surfaces in the film, and it's appropriate given that "Casino Jack" is very much in the vein of Gibney's 2005 "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Both projects detail a powerful subculture gone horribly awry – at the expense of others.
And as he did in "Enron," Gibney sifts through foul-mouthed e-mail exchanges among principal actors in the real-life drama; dissects the silly machismo behind them; and exposes the self-involvement, self-delusion and self-aggrandizement for what it is.
"Casino Jack" doesn't just live on the fun, fanatical fringe occupied by Abramoff. It also inhabits the more pedestrian ground of day-to-day politics that, unfortunately, too often collides with the cheatsof this world as epitomized by Abramoff. In this regard, former congressman Bob Ney and staffer Neil Volz are especially important.
They serve as moral touchstones of the story and suggest just how easy it can be to confuse the reality of gray with the absence of black and white, especially when it comes to campaign finance, or what one interviewee refers to as "legalized bribery."
"Casino Jack" is not only a cautionary tale; it's also a call to help fix a cracked political system. What a terrific call it is, with Gibney joking via the film's voiceover that Abramoff's "action-filled life" had given way to "a dreary documentary."
Dreary? No. Documentary? At its best.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.