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Casino Jack/Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Two Films, One Reality

Jack Abramoff is a compelling and loathsome character. His obsession with Hollywood suits him, since he’s such a cinematic figure. He’s larger than life and smart enough to out-think the overwhelming majority of the government minds who’ve established how this country is run. He’s also a shmuck, a guy who took advantage of the system in order to control politicians and get rich. Two movies came out this year about Abramoff. Casino Jack is a biopic directed by the late George Hickenlooper starring Kevin Spacey, which uses Abramoff as the subject of a dark comedy about a scoundrel who believes he did nothing against the law, but rather used the free market to his advantage. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a documentary (now on Netflix Instant Watch) by Alex Gibney which scores interviews with many of the key players in the various Abramoff scandals. The biopic gets some laughs and boasts some good performances by Spacey and Jon Lovitz, but the documentary truly gets to the anger-inducing truth of the matter, showing this isn’t just one scoundrel– this is the future of politics in America with no end in sight.

Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) is a lobbyist with connections in high places. With his partner Mike Scanlan (Barry Pepper), he’s very well-connected with House Majority Leader Tom Delay, Rep. Bob Ney, and other White House officials. He uses his friendships to exploit those in need of help from lawmakers and promises to get the lawmakers on their side for a large fee. Additionally, if Abramoff isn’t getting his deal done the way he wants, he uses his friends in power to bully Congress into making laws which force the opposition to cave to Abramoff’s desires. Jack continues to spend his money on ventures like restaurants, which then put him in greater need for more money. When a line of casino boats needs a buyer, he gets an old friend, Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz), to be the middle-man. When it turns out that Kidan has mob ties and behaves like a loose cannon, it causes problems for Abramoff, as do some pesky Native Americans who protest the fees that Abramoff charges for assistance with casino-related legislation. When writers for the Washington Post start to find out details about Abramoff’s business, his house of cards starts to crumble around him.

Spacey certainly is given plenty of dialogue to chew into. Abramoff’s obsession with film (he once produced two Dolph Lundgren films) allows Spacey to do some great impressions of famous movie stars. While it highlights Spacey’s comedic talent, it also does serve to underscore something that you don’t get when you read about Abramoff in Newsweek– he’s enormously charming. Sure, he has ego to spare and he’s devious beyond all understanding, but he’s as personable and convincing as any of the best politicians. When it comes to Abramoff’s knowledge of his wrongdoing, the film does tend to underplay it– it’s as if Hickenlooper wants the film to be from the perspective of Abramoff, and since Abramoff thinks he did nothing wrong, the movie shouldn’t make any judgments on him. The problem is, as a moderately intelligent human being, if you let the film’s one-liners and con games not distract you from the real issue at hand, failing to paint any element of the picture with Abramoff’s self-awareness of wrongdoing is misleading. Yes, he tells everyone else how the money he’s raising goes to things which make America better, and he might believe it too, but there’s no question that in reality he KNEW what he was doing was wrong, and here, we never get that moment. Instead, we get a long dream sequence in which Abramoff tells off McCain about the hypocrisy of the government to make his occupation legal and then lock him away for it. Due to the tone of the film, this seems less like a condemnation of the government on the whole and more like a defense of Abramoff, which can’t have been Hickenlooper’s goal. Jon Lovitz is a welcome sight in any movie though, and he is definitely capable of a great performance in a drama– I look forward to when it eventually happens.

Gibney’s documentary, on the other hand, gives a full comprehensive view of Abramoff and his crimes. It details every major player, giving some good back story and motivation to every character. Most importantly, in a documentary that deals heavily with politics and money issues, it manages to keep everything in plain English and manages to make it entertaining without taking the matters too lightly. The fact that Gibney lands interviews with Delay, Ney, and Kidan gives the film more credibility, and to hear these men discuss why they sided with Abramoff and made the decisions they did is nothing short of fascinating. Delay in particular is an immensely watchable figure, someone who psychologists could dig into for years based on these interviews. Figures like Delay and Ralph Reed show how religion is adopted into their lives solely so they can make more money from the grass roots folks. This is as plain as the noses on their faces, yet to hear them talk, they are still utterly convinced the Lord Jesus Christ is their personal savior. The politicians who visited the sweatshops that Abramoff helped run so willingly turned a blind eye to the injustices when visiting the islands– only one politician bothered to talk to a single worker out of the dozens who went.

Why are politicians so scared to stand up for a cause when lobbyists want them to back down? Because in the current system of American government we have today, lobbyists are allowed to control politicians as much as they want because they help set up fundraisers, and with the price of a political campaign rising so sharply in the last fifty years, without fundraisers from lobbyists, it’s damn near impossible to win an election. Thus, those who can change the current lobbyist system we have can’t get elected without the help of lobbyists. Does this make you angry? It should. Because right now, as those interviewed state as a plain fact, earmarks and special interests are thrown into bills that pass every single day, and those special interests can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Abramoff got sloppy– all of the egotistical things he says in Hickenlooper’s film were actually emailed in real life, easy evidence for a grand jury when you call your clients monkeys, morons, and troglodytes in written documentation. Yet Abramoff, the first “superlobbyist,” will absolutely not be the last. There will always be men motivated by greed who can find loopholes around written law and establish methods of hiding the laws they’re breaking, and they will be the ones standing on the dais next to our political leaders. Hickenlooper’s film is entertaining and helps make palatable the heart of the matter, but it doesn’t deliver the message in the same blunt way as the documentary does. The documentary begins with an email from Abramoff, stating no one wants to see a documentary, that people want action films. Perhaps Casino Jack has a better chance of reaching and educating a mass audience than Gibney’s docu does… but this is an infuriating issue that doesn’t appear to be going away for a long time until the American people at large stand up against it.

Casino Jack:

Casino Jack and the United States of Money:

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~ by russellhainline on December 17, 2010.

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