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The Casino That Jack Built: Alex Gibney Takes on a Disgraced Lobbyist

By Kathy McDonald

Greed is good--but most would agree it is not. But what if it's greed for good? Washington, DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff began his political career as a conservative College Republican building a movement around Ronald Reagan's election and that president's fervor for smaller government. Thirty years later, Abramoff is serving time in Federal prison, convicted of multiple counts of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.

Abramoff's spectacular rise-and-fall is documented in filmmaker Alex Gibney's upcoming Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The music-driven, information-saturated exposé takes on the multi-faceted Abramoff, who represented interests from the Mariana Islands of the South Pacific to Russia, and became notorious for the $45 million he persuaded American Indian tribes to pay him for his lobbying efforts on behalf of the gaming industry.


Jack Abramoff, subject of Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Prods.: Allison Ellwood, Zena Barakat), which opens May 7 through Magnolia Pictures. Photo: (c) Carlos Barria/Reuters/Corbis


"He was just a wild, larger-than-life character; he seemed to represent this out-of-control approach to money and politics," says Gibney, who decided to investigate the disgraced lobbyist, finding him spectacularly interesting, but not necessarily in a good way. "I think he is at the heart of a total breakdown of the system. He was not an exception to the rule; he was an exaggeration of business as usual." Abramoff's advocacy efforts on behalf of his clients at first pushed the boundaries of campaign finance laws but eventually crossed the line into illegal acts such as bribery, tax evasion-and perhaps even accessory to murder.

The film's subject dovetails well with two of Gibney's earlier projects: his Academy Award-wining Taxi to the Dark Side and the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. "I seem to be interested in the process of corruption," he maintains, noting that Casino Jack tackles political corruption; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room examines economic corruption and Taxi to the Dark Side reveals spiritual corruption. 

"It gets in my craw when the powerful abuse the weak," Gibney explains of his choices. "I don't like it when people take more than what they are entitled to: that doesn't reckon with the fundamental idea of fairness that our society is supposed to be all about. The mistake is to think of Jack [Abramoff] as a bad apple, when he's the spectacular evidence of the rotten barrel." His fall became a convenient mechanism, whereby everyone else could say, "Everything is good now," when in fact it's worse, notes Gibney of the state of a US political infrastructure powered by political contributions rather than its citizens.


Former US Congressman Tom DeLay, who appears in Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Gibney contends that Abramoff's earliest mindset was that of an idealist, but with the view that the ends justify the means. "People who are idealistic assume about themselves a kind of goodness, that cannot be besmirched by breaking a few rules here or there, so that's where they always get into trouble," he believes. Cutting corners eventually leads to greater transgressions.

Unlike Gibney's current untitled feature-length project on Eliot Spitzer (which will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival as a work-in-progress), Casino Jack's main idea has a certain simplicity: too much money in politics is a very bad thing. The Spitzer story is more complicated, and is structured more like a Greek tragedy, Gibney reveals. He believes the former New York Governor fell prey to the same hubris shown in the very executives he had once investigated. However, both films clearly demonstrate "the blood sport our political system has become," says Gibney.

The filmmaker was able to visit Abramoff at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, but the Department of Justice wouldn't approve filmed interviews. No audio recording or note-taking either ("Not even a pencil," says Gibney). Nor was he able to shoot in the US Capitol building: he had an idea for B-roll--janitors literally sweeping up the building--but that request to film was nixed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. "They found that a threat to the Republic," the director laughs.

An immense amount of information is imparted in the briskly paced film, which has been edited down eight minutes since its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.  Because Abramoff was such a multi-tentacled operator, and traveled around the world on behalf of his clients, his peripatetic nature influenced the film's structure and cinematic style. There were numerous money trails to follow. And each of environments was captured in a different way, from a sweeping Steadicam shot of a casino floor, to an aerial overview of the tropical Mariana Islands to refracted, Cubist-like angles of Washington, DC.

Gibney also relied on film clips to illustrate the moral conflicts within US politics and lobbyists like Abramoff. Among the films excerpted are Frank Capra's iconic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Patton, a film lionized by the College Republicans; and a closing clip from The Natural, which speaks both to corruption and the mythic power of the American dream. Interviews were shot on HD, utilizing two cameras: one was placed directly in front of subject, the other at a 90-degree angle. "I like the shifting perspective," Gibney explains. "Sometimes you see interesting things in that hard-side angle." He also uses the second camera's footage to jump the angle within an interview rather than using an extraneous cutaway.

Gibney opted to narrate Casino Jack himself. "It feels more honest," he says. "I'm writing the copy; why not speak it?" In addition to the narration, Gibney and his team underscored the documentary's mix of news footage, interviews and film clips with a diverse soundtrack of contemporary, hip-hop and blues music by such artists as Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Costello and New Orleans' Wild Tchoupitoulas. Song choices reveal deeper truths and add a pulse to the film that Gibney describes as "a toe-tapping Greek chorus that comments on the action or reflects the place and environment."

Throughout Casino Jack, Abramoff's skills as a lobbyist are in evidence. Former staffer Neil Volz contends that his former boss "could sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck." One can only wish that he had turned his considerable talents to good. "Sadly, he defined good as doing what he did," Gibney maintains. Lobbying remains pervasive in Washington, and true campaign finance reform is not imminent. Campaigns are staggeringly expensive and time-consuming. Gibney suggests that nothing has fundamentally changed since the Abramoff scandal: "The biggest problem we have is that money is able to exert a force of power [on Washington] that's irresistible. We need try to find a way to take money out of politics; unless that happens we're done."


Alex Gibney, director of Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Casino Jack and the United States of Money is scheduled for release May 7 from Magnolia Pictures. Participant Media is handling the social action campaign.


Kathy A. McDonald is a writer based in Los Angeles.