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Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

January 6, 2011

7/10 Indian Givers

It’s like Enron but with politics and it’s just as infuriating.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a documentary about one Jack Abramoff – a College Republican-turned-D.C. lobbyist who used his smooth-talkin’ ways and political influence to swindle the shit out of anyone gullible enough to trust him with their money. As it sometimes goes with folks whose astronomical greed manages to outshine a complete misunderstanding of right and wrong, Jack’s con man ways eventually landed him in The Big House for four years and, oh, how his Right-Wing buddies in office did fall.

So up until a week ago, I’d never even heard of Jack Abramoff. I vaguely remembered that image of him walking out of a courtroom like a Soviet spy with his matching fedora and trench coat getup, but other than that, dude could have barked in my face and I still wouldn’t have known who I was chasing after. I don’t know whether that’s just my being completely oblivious to current events during my High School and college years or if I should applaud FOX News for doing a bang-up job of pretending that it never happened, but it’s a shame that his name isn’t synonymous with “Abramoff-Gate” ’cause he sure screwed over a lot a whole lot of innocent people. Big time.

But it always helps to sign up for a movie about a guy who I didn’t even know existed when director Alex Gibney is the one giving me the low-down. The dude seems to be churning out documentaries at the same pace The Beatles released albums and whether it’s D.C. lobbyists, Gonzo journalists or torture practices in Afghanistan, the dude seems to have quite a range of topics at his disposal, too. The point is, this could have been a doc about the life and times of Big Bird and I would have seen it, he’s just that consistently good and he knows how to make a seriously compelling, well-researched movie.

And so we have Jack Abramoff, and while he’s the cornerstone of our story, he’s really only part of the problem. More than anything, he’s the poster boy for an ethically warped system that continually turned a blind eye thanks to the almighty dollar. As much as it’s his fault for being so morally jaded to the point where right and wrong ceased to be separate, ultimately, he was the scapegoat for government corruption that climbed way higher that anyone wanted to believe or cared to admit, he was the one who had to pay even though everyone else had a hand in the cookie jar.

But the most interesting thing about it all isn’t so much Abramoff’s crimes, but rather his transformation. Here’s a guy who was a born with a silver tongue and made his way to the Chair of College Republicans not because he was in it for a quick buck, but because he was entirely passionate about returning government control to the Right and getting others on the bandwagon. It wasn’t a malicious ambition by any means, nor did he practice it as such, he was just a guy who knew what people wanted to hear and used that to climb up the political ladder. Then he climbed higher, gained a reputation as the guy who could get things done, started raising questionable funds in questionable ways, and the rest is history.

There are some great testimonies here from people who knew Abramoff, tried to stop Abramoff or ended up getting shafted by Abramoff, but it’s really something else to hear from the one guy who worked under Abramoff and eventually served as a whistleblower of sorts. He talks about the outrageous expenses, the lavish business trips, how no one batted an eye because crime became the norm and how he was this close to ignoring his better judgment so that he could follow suit. Simply amazing what a man can become when it comes to money.

The saddest thing about it, more so than the national economies he destroyed, the Native American tribes he slowly forced into bankruptcy through the backdoor and the unfathomable profit he made off it all, it’s almost not even his fault. Yes, the depths he sank to are flat-out appalling, but if there was a cap on how much money could be raised for political foundations, if there were regulations that could prevented this kind of shit from ever becoming a concern, if there were politicians who lived up to the spirit of Mr. Smith, who could stand up and say “This is wrong” without taking a pay cut under the table, who would just do their effing job as advocates for the people, this documentary wouldn’t exist and Abramoff’s would still be producing Dolph Lundgren movies (even though that was all a  scheme, too). Even worse is that the system hasn’t changed and the only ones who’ve learned a thing are the ones who got burned.

Although as good as this movie is, it’s not for everyone. What peaked my interest to begin with was Gibney’s involvement since I only turn on CNN once every four years and my knowledge of D.C.’s inner-workings along with anything that has to do with campaign fundraising continues to round out at nada, and as a result, all this ends up being a lot to take in. It might bore some while fascinating others, and that has nothing to do with how this doc is put together, it just goes back to the subject material. Lots of political jargon, lots of white collar corruption that you can tell is effed up even if it sounds like Greek when not spelled out in layman’s terms, but whether it’s music to your ears or like listening to Charlie Brown’s teachers ramble on for two hours, you’ll still get the gist of what’s going on and that karma is gonna be a bitch for the chumps behind it all.

All the same, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a well-made and important movie if only because of the way it showcases how straight-up corrupt Abramoff and his pals were, how they were able to get away with it, and how the avenues they took to achieve their schemes are still open for business. Hopefully it will make your head spin and appall the hell out of you, but either way, at least you’ll know who Abramoff is when the topic comes up at your next cocktail party (like I have any idea where you’d have a Jack Abramoff conversation) and you’ll be able to chime right in with, “Fuck that guy!” Same goes for Tom DeLay, regardless of how good he can salsa. Gibney’s not trying to harpoon the guy because his record speaks for itself and he’s only a piece of the puzzle, but it’s just great to see movies that don’t let criminals off the hook when all the courts can muster up is a slap on the wrist compared to the lives that were ruined and the power that was abused.

Five years in jail? Weak. But he did have to work at pizzeria for six months after he got out. Awesome punishment!

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