Mark Reviews Movies


2  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alex Gibney

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 5/7/10 (limited); 5/14/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 13, 2010

Alex Gibney's recounting of the Jack Abramoff case is as occasionally intriguing as what boils down to a visual deposition can be. It invokes as much mild outrage as a presentation of lobbying gone wild can. It's not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.

Using the same style and structure (start off with a bang, followed by talking heads intercut with archival footage) and making a lot of the same arguments as his exploration of the fraud perpetrated by smartest guys at Enron, Gibney lets the facts bury the subjects of Casino Jack and the United States of Money. One can sense the filmmaker wanting to go for the throat. Whether it's a sense of journalistic objectivity (There are enough argumentative shortcuts and party favoritism on display to truly consider that), a fear of facing defamation claims, or a desire to stay in the favor of certain interview subjects, a lot of tough questions go unanswered, simply because Gibney doesn't seem to want to ask them.

Abramoff, a special breed of super-lobbyist whose only political interests seemed to be the ones off of which he and his buddies (sounding like frat boys in incriminating e-mails) could make money, is currently in prison for the criminal intent and results of his lobbying techniques. The movie starts before the man's life of instigating pay-to-play politics, in the fascinating dissection of the building of Abramoff's character.

His parents were secular, and by combining his love of movies and pre-teen rebellion, he decided to become an Orthodox Jew after watching Fiddler on the Roof. His political outlook was inspired by the novels and movies espousing the theory that Communist spies had infiltrated the United States. He and his more zealous friends in the College Republicans were the kind of people who believed The Manchurian Candidate was based in reality (Which isn't a dead concept, as listening to certain folks today, one might think the Cold War is still ongoing).

Not letting such things as tyranny and injustice get in the way, Abramoff helped organize a meeting with shady "freedom fighters" against Communism.

He started producing movies with funding from an apartheid-era South Africa, making Red Scorpion, with Dolph Lundgren as a Soviet soldier who discovers the error of his ways (The clips will make any crap-movie fan drool with potential).

Gibney portrays a man of solid convictions based on shaky foundations, a man whose friends include Ralph Reed, who envisioned a grassroots campaign to politically activate evangelical Christians, and Grover Norquist. Norquist once stated that he doesn't want to abolish government; he simply wants "to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

These dreams are partially realized in a freer market, and Abramoff took full advantage. Helping to keep a sweatshop in Saipan that workers reported made them indentured servants open, Abramoff flew Republican leaders to the city. The congressmen were less interested in the stories of the workers than in the five-star hotel and many golf courses Abramoff showed them. Then House Majority Whip Tom DeLay visited and, when interviewed here, still says he saw nothing wrong. A member of Congress from the other side of the aisle speaks of talking to one of the workers, who offered to sell his kidney to the congressman so he could pay off his debt to his employer.

Gibney lets DeLay slide in his interview, even when he goes so far as to imply that critics of the garment shop were lying (Gibney's inclusion of DeLay on a television dancing show, which apparently can't even get C-list celebrities, is a cheap shot, but one that perhaps might be the least he deserves). In spite of this, Gibney has no problem calling the resulting Saipan an example of the free market in action. There's no garment shop anymore, but the sex salve industry has skyrocketed.

The movie's thorough examination of Abramoff's lobbying career is the stuff of all-too familiar greed (although one interviewee dubs his story one of the human flaw, which is a rough pill to swallow) and involves ripping off Native American tribes to prevent other tribes from opening up a competing casino (Not the way of the free market, now is it?), golf trips in corporate jets to Scotland, and a Greek businessman killed in what seems a mob hit.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a safe indictment of the most obvious type of wrongful lobbying.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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