Dir. Alex Gibney
(2010, R, 118 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a 118-minute journey through the labyrinthine halls of power in Washington, and about two-thirds of the way through I began to experience brain-melt; the machinations of corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff would be impressive if for no other reason than that he managed to keep them all straight. The documentary by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is a lively account of his career and downfall, sobering in the ways it explores widespread corruption in American politics, but leavened by biting humor.

It all comes down to money, and I won’t list for you all the recent documentaries about American corruption where it all comes down to money; I’ve already written about them at length. Towards the end of Casino Jack, Gibney argues that the great national pastime isn’t baseball but the pursuit of wealth. The United States, at the highest levels of governance, is a plutocracy disguised as a democracy, and it’s tricky to distinguish Abramoff’s criminal infractions from business as usual in Washington DC.

Tom DeLay

Gibney interviews Tom DeLay, the notorious former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives and a key Abramoff ally, who unapologetically discusses his crusade to eliminate government regulation and open up the federal legislature to unlimited monetary influence: pay-to-play described proudly as if it’s a reasonable law-making strategy. He came to these conclusions while working as an exterminator; the EPA prohibited him from using DDT, and from then on he resolved that businesses should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want. (The Supreme Court agrees: recently they lifted all restrictions on corporate campaign spending, so the more money you have, the better democracy will work for you.)

Abramoff himself is a fascinating character, once a self-aggrandizing College Republican who likened the national rise of conservatism to freedom-fighting. He produced the Dolph Lundgren action film Red Scorpion, which espoused anti-Communist ideology and in the process whitewashed a brutal African dictator. As a lobbyist, he helped human-rights violators in the Northern Mariana Islands – with help from DeLay and other legislators – escape labor and immigration reforms. He teamed with hypocritical Christian groups to defeat legalized gambling on the behalf of other casino-owners who wanted to eliminate their competition. He exchanged emails with his business partner in which they described their malfeasance, celebrating the fleecing of their victims with damning vulgarity. Wearing a black fedora and trench coat during a court appearance in 2006, he was the best scapegoat Washington could have asked for, a perfect villain on whom grandstanding politicians could apply their condemnations about the corruption of insider-politics. But Abramoff was a by-product of the system, not the perpetrator of it; he shook the hands of a lot of willing politicos who, now that he’s gone, are gladly accepting contributions from someone else.

Informationally speaking, Casino Jack is a bit overstuffed, cramming into the last ten minutes a few musings about the financial crisis that Gibney should save for another movie entirely, but it’s otherwise enlightening and entertaining, dizzying as it draws us deeper into the poisonous culture that has infected American politics from the top down. The solution seems fairly obvious, and as such has little hope of ever coming to pass: public funding of political campaigns, which would remove entirely the influence of special interests. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a politician in a position of power suggest such a thing. They know who signs their checks.