There's plenty to be said, mostly by people smarter than me, about the corrupting influence of lobbying and campaign fundraising on the legislative process. Everyone, no matter what their political stripe, will complain that "nothing gets done in Washington, D.C."--that no meaningful legislation that's good for Americans can get to a vote because of the wealthy business interests who money up against it, that politicians can't get any work done because of the amount of their time they have to spend hosting fundraisers and calling people to beg for money. And thanks to the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling, now corporations can spend freely to buy even more influence. But start talking about fixing the system, about comprehensive campaign finance reform, and everybody loses their minds. You can't dictate that, genie's out of the bottle, socialism, whatever.
"Has it always been like this?" asks Alex Gibney, early on in his terrific documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. "Or has something changed?" Who knows? What is safe to say is that there's no going back--not if a story like that of Jack Abramoff didn't change things. The press focused on his villainy, his courtroom attire, whether he had met Bush this time or that, how deep in it Tom DeLay was. There was more to it than that. There was much more to it than that.
Casino Jack is a wide-ranging tale, broad in its scope, going from the Reagan years to the second Bush administration, from the U.S. to the Marianas Islands to Malaysia, from college Republican clubs to the corridors of Washington's most powerful people. Using archival footage, new interviews, wiretap recordings, and occasional reenactments, Gibney tracks Abramoff's rise to D.C. supremacy, starting with a fascinating look at the young Republicans who ended up shaping modern conservatism--Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and a ridiculously young-looking Karl Rove. From there, we see how Abramoff and his ilk ascended following the Republican Revolution of 1994, and made a fortune defending reprehensible corporate interests and flim-flamming Indian casinos well into the Bush administration.
Gibney is a documentarian of tremendous skill (his previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as this year's Tribeca selection My Trip to Al-Qaeda), and Casino Jack is strikingly well-made--cleverly edited, fast-paced, clear but smart. The only real flaw is in the music choices, which frequently skew too cutesy.
The most fascinating element of the picture is the exposition, the nuts and bolts, how all this worked, how he moved the money, how he bought influence with it, how he chopped it up with his accomplices, how he (for all intents and purposes) laundered it for allies like Reed and DeLay. "Lobbying is a system of legalized bribery," contends Representative Peter Fitzgerald. There's not much reason to dispute that claim. Gibney skews more critical of Republicans than Democrats, but then again, Republicans were more complicit here (and the Democrats involved certainly get their due).
Casino Jack is not a dull, "talking heads" doc; there are crackerjack stylistic touches (like how the incriminating emails between Abramoff and Michael Scanlon--voiced by Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd--are presented) and genuinely cinematic sequences, such as the eventual "fall of the house of cards" (thrillingly assembled to the strains of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman"). But it ultimately thrives, as most good docs do, on the personalities of the fascinating characters assembled--not just villains like Abramoff and Reed or regretful fallen men like Bob Ney and Neil Volz, but dupes like David Grosh, the lifeguard who became the president of a front "think tank". Most of the time, when you see someone involved in a story like this who claims that they had no idea what was actually going on, you don't believe them. You totally believe this guy. DeLay, on the other hand? That's a tougher pill to swallow.
The 1.78:1 image is heavily reliant on archival materials of varying quality; some are a little beat-up, but most are well-preserved. The new materials--interviews, B-roll, fleeting moments of reenactment--are solid, though there are some slightly soft shots (mostly in the darker, moodier interviews).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is quite sharp--interviews and narration clean and audible in the center, effects and music are vibrant in the surround channels. Some of the wiretap audio is a little muffled, but that's certainly understandable and certainly no flaw in the mix.
Spanish subtitles are also available.
The film gets a generous helping of bonus features, beginning with director Alex Gibney's Audio Commentary. A commentary track for a documentary can be tricky--it's a talky, informative picture to begin with, so slapping on another layer of information has a sense of overload about it. But Gibney's track is smart and interesting, though there's quite a bit of repetition between this track and the other bonus features.
Next are a pair of outstanding Deleted Scenes (7:41 total), one detailing how lobbying dollars bought passage of Bush's prescription drug bill, another delving into the practice of putting Congressional wives on the payroll as another method of greasing the wheels. Extended Interviews (25:45 total) with Bob Ney, Adam Kidan, David Grosh, Thomas Frank, and Dana Rohrbacher add some additional insight; Frank's supplementary comments are especially valuable. Next up is the "New York Film Premiere Q&A with Alex Gibney, Bob Ney, Neil Volz and Adam Kidan" (9:49), a candid and thought-provoking clip from the director and subjects' Q&A at New York's IFC Center.
"A Conversation with Alex Gibney" (8:15) is a chat between the director and radio host Leo Quinones in which they discuss his encounters with Abramoff, his stylistic touches, and what this story should teach us. Six promotional Webisodes (26:51 total) follow, including additional interviews and factoids, background from Gibney, examination of the clear line between the Tea Party and Abramoff's contemporaries, and a cartoon commentary on the Citizens United decision. "I'm Just a Bill" (2:16) is an amusing updating of the famous Schoolhouse Rock cartoon; "Lobbying 101" is a series of text-only primers on lobbying, campaign finance, and the Citizens United decision.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an honest picture--director Gibney rabble-rouses without pandering--but it is infuriating, particularly as Representative DeLay, disgraced and charged with criminal violations of campaign finance laws and money laundering, sits with a straight face and tells Gibney's cameras that no, everything's fine, the system works, these kind of hefty donations should be defended as an issue of "free speech." But it's not about free speech. It's about greed and corruption. It is, as we're told at the beginning of the film, about "the selling of America."
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.