(On DVD, July 2011) Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney specializes in films designed to infuriate his audiences, and after such minor masterpieces as An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc, documentary audiences are back for more with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a non-fiction piece about the influence of lobbying in Washington… as seen through the story of Jack Abramoff, the most infamous lobbyist of them all. Abramoff’s sin wasn’t being a lobbyist: it was pushing it so far beyond the venal standards of Washington as to be caught and reigned in. As is now the case for many top-notch documentaries, Gibney’s entertaining exposé mixes fictional re-creation (“A documentary? Why don’t you make an action movie?” says Abramoff in an email; so Gibney obliges by recreating a gun-down that figures somewhere in Abramoff’s checkered history.), talking heads, infographics, press clippings, archival material and a bit of original reporting. It paints a damning portrait of a man who saw an opportunity to soak his clients and did it. But Abramoff’s story is far from being the most infuriating aspect of Casino Jack Casino Jack and the United States of Money, given how thoroughly the film suggests, explains and demonstrates the astonishing power of money into the American political system. Don’t like a law? Pay lobbyists to call politicians, “explain” the issues to them (via exotic junkets and campaign contributions) and wait for results to roll in. Call it a quick and nauseating primer into the way politics are conducted in the real-world. Even cynics may be disgusted to see their worst fears given form. Abramoff may have done prison time for his crimes, but it’s important to remember that it takes the willing participation of politicians for this scheme to work… and Casino Jack Casino Jack and the United States of Money ends on a somber note, pointing out how quickly the Washington establishment dropped any enquiries into the Abramoff scandal once it was assured that the lobbyist would go away for a long time. While the brainy subject matter may not make this a crowd-pleasing favourite, it does make another entry in an increasing number of cogent high-quality documentaries tackling real issues. It makes a compelling (if confusingly-named) double-feature with the docu-fictive Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey: Watch the fiction to sympathize with the character, then watch the documentary to get the facts. In-between showing scenes from Abramoff’s Hollywood feature Red Scorpion and ending on the absurdist note of seeing Don Delay (who willingly built the infrastructure that made Abramoff’s schemes possible) on “Dancing with the Stars”, Casino Jack and the United States of Money speaks for itself and the self-satirizing nature of contemporary American politics.
(On DVD, June 2011) Casino Jack never played in more than a few dozen theaters, but this limited release had more to do with its specialized subject than any particular fault in the film’s execution. Consider the total audience for a low-budget sardonic comedy about a real-life American lobbyist who ended up in prison after a few spectacular instances of fraud, taking along a few others with him. It’s not exactly wide-audience stuff, but maybe that’s a good thing, because this fictional take on the Jack Abramoff story may not be able to afford much in terms of production values, but it can afford to be remarkably engaged about its subject. For the facts, have a look at Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which covers the same ground from a documentary perspective. For a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a professional con man like Abramoff and a blackly amusing look at the way Washington really works, however, get this film. Kevin Spacey shines as Abramoff, portraying a complex character with a lot of empathy. Supporting players include Barry Pepper as a business partner, Jon Lovitz as a hilariously inept businessman with ties to the mob and Rachel Lefebvre as a woman scorned. While the film does feel a bit flatter than it should be given the subject matter, it’s not a bad time at all, and one gets the feeling that Abramoff himself would like the result. The DVD contains only a few special features. Skip over the gag reel and deleted scenes, but sadly-deceased director George Hickenlooper’s written notes and pictures of the production give an intriguing glimpse of how a low-budget film shot near Toronto could double for Washington and Miami thanks to second-unit work and clever location scouting.