'Casino Jack and the United States

The outlandish schemes and influence-peddling are too much to pack into one movie.

The outlandish schemes and influence-peddling devised by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff are too much to pack into one movie, a fact amply demonstrated by doc filmmaker Alex Gibney’s “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Auds will feel info-glut over the course of the two-hour-plus film, which is hardly the desirable response for a piece of reporting on the vital issue of the corrupting effect of money in American politics. The May 7 release date won’t help the theatrical profile of the pic, which is best seen on video anyway.

Gibney unfortunately thinks he must use noirish thriller devices to grab attention at the start, with a half-baked re-creation of the mob hit on casino owner Gus Boulis, whose 2001 murder allowed Abramoff and business partner Adam Kidan to control Boulis operation. This turns out to be a nasty but minor sideshow in the larger story of Abramoff’s masterful con jobs that ensnared a bevy of congressmen and senators.

By far the film’s most interesting section is Gibney’s well-researched study of Abramoff’s political roots in the College Republicans, the breeding ground of a generation of true believers in unregulated free markets, minimal government and the evils of Communism, whose ranks include Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Striking clips of young Reed and others engaged in street theater makes them look like the SDS of the right; a section on Abramoff’s arrangement of an international conference of freedom fighters in Angola is a stark indicator of this group’s radicalism.

The film shows how Abramoff’s brand of political zealotry can lead one to do anything for one’s cause, no matter the legality. Norquist’s K Street Project (designed to position as many Republicans in lobbying firms as possible) and former House majority whip Tom DeLay’s pay-to-play approach to political fundraising via political action committees were the foundations of Abramoff’s influence peddling.

“Jack could sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck,” recalls one observer, and with his ties to DeLay, Abramoff began to build a lobbying empire for himself. Where “Casino Jack” soon becomes dizzying in its quest to uncover and explain the entire Abramoff saga is in a chain of sequences detailing his business in sweatshop exploitation, with Indian casinos, pharmaceutical companies and mob-connected Russian tycoons. It’s too much to take in during a single sitting, but the stunning reality is disturbing: that a skilled lobbyist can simultaneously bilk his clients while seducing them and politicians with sweetheart, quid pro quo deals.

All of it, Gibney reminds, was in the interest of government deregulation, a core DeLay principle (which he reiterates for Gibney’s camera), and one that has ravaged the U.S. economy.

Onscreen figures form a parade of talking heads, though one who stands out is remorseful Abramoff ally Neil Volz expressing moral disgust at himself. Maryse Alberti’s sharp cinematography is up to her regularly high standards, while song selections (the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”) are a bit too cute. Gibney’s considerable narration is better suited to PBS Frontline, which this sometimes resembles.

The U.S. Justice Department prevented Gibney from filming Abramoff during many hours of in-prison interviews. Meanwhile, the director is in an ongoing dispute over use of the title with director George Hickenlooper, whose upcoming narrative feature on Abramoff is currently titled “Casino Jack.”

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Production

A Magnolia Pictures release of a Participant Media and Good and Jigsaw Prods. presentation. Produced by Alex Gibney, Alison Ellwood, Zena Barakat. Executive producers, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Ben Goldhirsch, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Bill Banowsky. Co-producer, Alexandra Johnes. Directed, written by Alex Gibney.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Maryse Alberti; editor, Allison Ellwood; music, John McCullough; sound, Phil Stockton, Al Zaleski; associate producer, Sam Black. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2010. Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Voices: Stanley Tucci, Paul Rudd.

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