Alex Gibney is clearly one of our more talented documentarians, finding ways to capture the Enron scandal (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the U.S. policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side), and even the life of Hunter S. Thompson (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson). But he stumbles a few too many times with his latest work, the ambitious Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary that tries to capture the lunacy of the life of legendary lobbyist Jack Abramoff but goes a bit too far in turning corruption, greed, and plain evil into entertainment. With dozens of film clips and “clever” song choices, Gibney definitely finds a way to spin a complex, political tale into something easily understood and digested by Middle America and there’s undeniably something to be said for the talent it takes to make a complicated story feel like more entertainment than history lesson. But Gibney muddles the horror of the ripple effect caused by Abramoff’s neverending greed and allows him, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and most of the other major players in this nightmare off the hook too easily with the classic “it’s the barrel, not a bad apple” excuse that essentially claims that all of Washington is evil. So why care? Ultimately, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is about a group of disgusting human beings who looked the other way when faced with human suffering and made money off the pain of others. It’s an informative, interesting documentary that just barely comes together enough and tells an important enough story to merit a look, but it’s not the film that it could have been.
Clearly, I’m not hiding the fact that my stomach turns when I think about Jack Abramoff, a man who wormed his way into Washington’s inner circle in order to make money and grab power by controlling elected officials through campaign contributions. The examples of Abramoff’s power-wielding are far too many to list here but he basically played power broker to the people who could pay him and his friends. And, in doing so, he engineered a situation where human rights violations were undervalued merely by providing a lovely day on the golf course. The house of cards that ultimately sank Abramoff centered around a casino scam in which the lobbyist would basically bankrupt hard-earned businesses by forcing them to make ridiculous contributions to his political friends in order for their support (and, of course, taking a nice chunk of change on the side for himself). Like a lot of power-hungry idiots, Abramoff got sloppy, setting up fake think tanks to launder his money and appointing a man who admits he’s not even qualified to run a Baskin Robbins much less a think tank to act as the puppet leader. Hard-working people were basically extorted into paying money to keep their businesses afloat while politicians like Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Michael Scanlon, and Ralph Reed made millions. It is American politics infected and destroyed by America’s greatest pastime – unchecked capitalism. Abramoff and his cronies saw nothing wrong with the utter destruction they enabled as long as the causes they believed in were well-financed. And golfing every weekend made them all happier.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money will make you angry. It should. And I think Gibney knew the fact that the story could have gotten pretty dark and hard to watch. When one of the few opponents of a slave labor practice that Abramoff protected tells the story of a worker asking him if he would buy his kidney so he could be released from his financial obligation an employer who kept him prisoner, it would turn even Dick Cheney’s stomach. This is a serious chapter in American politics. And I wished Gibney treated it with such seriousness more often. There’s something to be said for the Michael Moore school of “entertaining while you educate” and Gibney’s film is definitely entertaining but it’s ultimately too easy on Abramoff, DeLay, Ney, etc., perhaps because it got most of them (but not Jack himself) to sit for an interview. When it ends with footage of DeLay on Dancing With the Stars, we’re supposed to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all (and it’s hard not to) but one wonders if we weren’t just laughing and were justifiably furious instead, if something like this wouldn’t happen again.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF BONES