Jack Abramoff is a name that both stands out and shrinks to the background of a host of names that came out within the last few years. News of bank failures, pyramid schemes and political malfeasance crowded the news, and Abramoff’s name somehow stood out and melted into the monster that was Bernie SachsAmoff. Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money respects the distinction and the connection by exploring the mind of a man who would defraud the Native Americans, help keep sweatshops open and cuddle up nice and close to politicians while showing how his actions played a role in the collapse of the housing market.
This film has a ton going for it. As a documentary, the subject matter is not only compelling, but it is recent and matters within the framework of our cultural and political conversations. Gibney digs deep, leaving no wad of fifties unturned as he tracks the college years, early career, and scandal of Abramoff.
The narrative of the film speaks of Abramoff as an epic hero in his own mind, spinning off the Cold War era, Us Vs Them attitude and deciding he was a put-upon warrior for the free market (not to mention producing his own action film to spread his message). It’s a fascinating assertion that is bolstered by the interviewees and pretty much any outside reading on the man you can find.
Instead of kicking a man while he’s jailed, Gibney does the classic documentarian move of wanting to learn more instead of simply painting a portrait of the man marred by one-sidedness. That portrait emerges loud and clear regardless, and is impossible to ignore considering the egregious nature of the crimes committed and his assured guilt. However, the film is rounded out by several storylines – the modern history of an island used by U.S. businesses to create sweatshops and maintain their Made In the USA tags, the story of Congressman Bob Ney who plays both criminal and victim, the swindling of Native American casinos – and all of them are augmented by the private emails of Jack Abramoff and cohort Michael Scanlon (read by Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd respectively).
If the film has anything going against it, it’s that it might be too thorough. There’s a ton of information to sort through, and Gibney chooses to include it all in what might be an overload.
Oddly enough, the other problem is that there’s a key part in the narrative missing. While Abramoff is seen in archival footage, the man himself is not on camera to give his side of the story. It’s difficult to fault the filmmakers since they tried to get the man on camera, but it’s a noticeable absence from an otherwise rounded doc.
Over all, it’s easy to see why a documentary like this would get people riled up. It displays the evils of several powerful men who get their wish – an unfettered system of capitalism. Of course that system leads to massive misuse and eventual collapse, and our hindsight makes for higher blood pressure.
The political and social commentary here is both personal and abstract, there’s a lot of information to drop jaws, and it manages to be both inflammatory and fair.
The Upside: Strong, compelling figures and a modern scandal.
The Downside: Too much information and the man himself is missing.
On the Side: Abramoff should be released from jail in a few years so the possibility of the man making his own movie is definitely strong.