Judge Adam Arseneau hates kickbacks, especially when people wear steel-toed boots.
Meet Jack Abramoff…America's greatest lobbyist.
A scathing teardown of the political machine in America, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a fascinating emotional rollercoaster ride, leading viewers on a traumatic journey of greed, corruption, and scandal throughout every facet of Washington. Welcome to America, ladies and gentleman…she is for sale.
Facts of the Case
A portrait of Jack Abramoff, super-lobbyist, Casino Jack and the United States of Money provides a scathing portrait of Washington corruption. From his early years as a GOP rising star to his disgrace in court, Abramoff cut a swath through Capitol Hill as a take-no-prisoners lobbyist who could get anything done, regardless of the cost. Buying and selling influence like currency, Abramoff was at the heart of international intrigue, scandal, casinos, spies, sweatshops, and corruption, until his eventual conviction in 2006.
No point putting this off any longer: Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a wonderful documentary from start to finish. A scathing teardown of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) composes a story of a greedy and immoral GOP riser who peddled influence for cash, establishing a network of corruption and scandal throughout Washington that extended to every nook and cranny of the political system. Is Abramoff a bad person? It's hard to say. But boy howdy, did he run Washington.
Tremendously detailed and well-researched, Casino Jack and the United States of Money introduces us to a young Jack Abramoff: charismatic, well-liked, a natural salesman, and a rising star in the GOP political machine. His network of associates includes seasoned veterans and political powerhouses like House Majority leader Tom DeLay, advocacy group leader Grover Norquist, Senator Bob Ley, political activist Ralph Reed, and dozens of lobbyists, White House officials, and congressional staffers. With a messianic sense of competition and fanatical devotion to government deregulation, Abramoff integrated himself into the American lobbyist system like a leech. A highly visible figure in the Bush administration, he sat atop an empire of influence, buying and selling political influence within the GOP, pocketing money in every direction.
The best documentaries are the kind in which audiences are taken completely for a loop, their expectations thrown into a lurch, like mistaking fifth gear for third on a standard transmission automobile. The story laid out in Casino Jack and the United States of Money is so ludicrous, so amazingly far-fetched that it boggles the rational mind. It reads like something out of a political satire, so preposterous that it could never actually be fact. Yet, here we are: Jack is in jail, serving a four-year sentence, and quite a few of his associates have been demoted from their positions of power. It was all real, Dorothy—the casinos, the Chinese sweatshops, the Malaysian government, the mob-style killings, all of it.
Like most documentaries, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is composed of newsreels, stock footage, still photographs, and interviews with key players and pundits. While you won't see the likes of Karl Rove interviewed, a surprising number of affected people are willing to speak, including Tom DeLay and Bob Ley. The one key voice missing here, ironically, is Abramoff himself. Filmmakers argued with the federal justice system to allow Abramoff to record interview (something director Gibney says Abramoff was willing to do) but were denied approval. The film survives not having Abramoff present by showcasing the voracious amount of damning e-mails sent by the lobbyist over the years, a fact that in no small part contributed to his downfall.
Abramoff himself is the star of the film, but the documentary itself is not really about him. He is the pariah, a figurehead of a systemic corruption permeating every avenue of Washington. Through Abramoff's folly, we learn about how the system of lobbying and campaign finance works in America today; a system held hostage to the highest bidder, where political influence is a currency bought and sold for money. No doubt, Abramoff himself is spectacularly guilty of exploiting every loophole in the book, but his real crime in the eyes of his colleagues may be less felonious and more Icarus. He reached too high, shredded the envelope; he ruined the party for everyone. When everyone has their hand in the cookie jar, it is hard to morally condemn a single individual for wrongdoing, but easy to throw him to the wolves when he gets caught.
Indeed, the real villain in Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the system itself, a bloated and corrupt machine fueled by the funding of private and foreign interests and corporations alike. Abramoff did not singlehandedly ruin American democracy; he just played the game better than anyone else. Regardless of political affiliation, this documentary should be an eye-opening experience to all. You might not have been a supporter of campaign finance reform in the past, but it is hard to argue against it after seeing this documentary.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Casino Jack and the United States of Money has a clean, balanced appearance with clean lines, balanced flesh tones, respectable white levels, and solid black levels. As with all documentaries, the source material greatly varies from sequence to sequence, but overall the image is clean, if a bit on the soft side. This is not a title to wow your home theater system; it gets the job done. Likewise, the 5.1 surround is mostly overkill. Dialogue is clear and clean, primarily focused on the center channel, with musical queues filling up the rear channels as expected.
Extras are solid for a single-disc set. We get a commentary track with director Alex Gibney, deleted scenes, extended interviews, Q&A footage from the New York premiere, an interview with the director, webisodes, a short cartoon in the style of Schoolhouse Rock, and a featurette on lobbying, "Lobbying 101." What I found most interesting about the features is the seemingly willing participation of some people in the film that do not come out exactly clean, like Republican Bob Ley and Neil Volz. As people convicted in the Abramoff scandal, it is heartening to see their open and honest dialogue here. Sure, they made mistakes, but if they're showing up to Q&A sessions to answer questions during the screening of the film, that says a lot for their character in my book. At least they're not hiding from it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though well-structured and segmented into key transitional sequences, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is that special kind of exquisitely detailed documentary that struggles to reign in its enthusiasm and ends up flooding audiences with names, dates, and facts. It is nearly impossible to keep track of all the corruption, the greed and the malfeasance, and the film soon descends into a blur.
With a running time of two hours, one realizes early on that filmmakers had hours and hours of material at their disposal, and that if it were up to them, this film would be seven hours long. As it stands, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is just slightly too long—a mere 15 minutes cut would make all the difference between a rapt audience and one with glazed eyes.
A superb film from start to finish, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a marvelous playback of key events with all the intrigue and drama of a '70s spy novel. This is the kind of documentary I so adore: well-balanced and detailed, never openly pressing an agenda. In the end, Abramoff himself may not the villain, as much as the tumor on the surface indicating a much more sinister malignancy creeping deep with the American electoral system.
Feeling depressed? Dejected? I'm not a doctor, but after watching Casino Jack and the United States of Money, take my advice: the best remedy is to watch old reruns of The West Wing. After all, President Bartlett was for campaign finance reform.
A must-see documentary.
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