Show me the money.....

Alex Gibney is an American documentary film director best know for a couple of films; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (nominated in '05 for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards) and Taxi to the Dark Side (and winner of the '07 Oscar for Best Doc). His latest work, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, chronicles the rise and fall of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Gibney is an interesting and talented director/producer, quite different from the likes of say, Michael Moore. The material he assembles for his films is generally presented in straightforward, chronological order, making certain that the audience is clear on how and where all the puzzle pieces fit together. As a result there tend to be fewer “aha!” moments in a typical Gibney documentary, but also a lessor inclination toward debatable assumptions and dubious juxtapositions which can sometime undermine the work of directors like Moore. The downside of this template is Gibney's tendency to sometimes drift into info-barrage territory. Too many news reports, talking-head opinions and anecdotes, archival audio and video footage, and dramatic recreations can seem a little overwhelming at times. More factoids that basically say the same thing don't necessarily serve to advance the central theme.

Casino Jack is about the vast gray area where U.S. political lobbying and big money intersect. It's about an inherently flawed political funding system that funnels cash from various interest groups into the pockets of politico's who make and break government policy. It's about systemic bribery and how the lucrative business of K-Street lobbying has fundamentally undermined the nation's democratic process. It's about what happens when you introduce unfettered and uncontrolled free market principles into the political realm. It documents unconditionally how these forces have created the conditions whereby immoral and unethical practices are seen as natural and positive influences by the practitioners. It's enough to make you sick.

One of the architects and greatest proponents of the practice of political/financial lubrication was a man named Jack Abramoff. The first third of the film is devoted to contextualizing Abramoff's near-fanatical idealism by connecting his early-'80s rise to the leadership of the College Republican movement (alongside other conservative ideologue-nutjobs Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist), his fondness for action movies, and his orthodox Jewish faith and conservative values with the man who would ultimately sit at the centre of a network of questionably-legal, but unequivocally-unethical bribery schemes that extended to the very heart of the Republican Party, Congress and the Bush Whore House. The middle third of Casino Jack is devoted to detailing Abramoff's upstart years, his growing network of associates, his formidable work on Capitol Hill stealing money from and/or funneling money through offshore sweatshops, Indian casinos, gambling cruise ships, shady Russian conglomerates, and other assorted dubious ventures. The final third documents how the whole sordid affair came undone.

To say Abramoff was the ringleader of some shadowy star chamber of graft would be incorrect because all of this took place in the light of day.....actually it's pronounced “DeLay” for Tom DeLay, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who represented Texas's 22nd congressional district from 1984 until 2006. As the GOP House Majority Leader from 2003 to 2005, Delay was the king of reckless deregulation, influence peddling and money laundering in Washington during Jack's tenure as the cash-king of the lobbying circuit, the man where the buck temporarily stopped before being allocated to the politicians who played ball and towed the line-item-vetos. Between them they were the J.J. Hunsecker and Sydney Falco of campaign finance sleaze. If there's a big fish that needed to get fried in this fiasco, DeLay was it, but the investigation that led to Abramoff's arrest and conviction on three criminal felony counts of defrauding several American Indian tribes and the corruption of public officials, never included the Delay... just about everyone around him, but not Tommy himself. Delay was indicted in 2005 however, on unrelated criminal charges of conspiracy to violate election laws in Texas in 2002.

By the end of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, after 122 minutes of absorbing meticulously-researched detail and irrefutable evidence on the nature and scope of this immense conspiracy, it's difficult not to be left with an acute sense of disillusionment and despair. A few of the most egregious perpetrators ended up in jail to be sure, but mostly because they self-documented their crimes almost daily in endless emails to one another. Let the record show that these bozo's wrote the text that ended up proving they were waste-deep in a criminal conspiracy. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Guilty as charged.

I went into some detail about the film here because I doubt many of you will watch it. In the cynical time that is our own, Gibney's film might suffer a little from stating the obvious. We've become so jaded and insular in recent years that most will just shrug at the egregious crimes exposed in Casino Jack and who can blame them? With corruption, sleaze and a lack of empathy pervading nearly every level of society and its institutions, what's yet another story about political rot gonna change? At pretty much any other time in recorded history, these clowns would have all been sent to the gallows and publicly executed, but these days....?

Tom Delay's retired and ended up on Dancing with the Stars last year. The charges against him in Texas were dropped in August 2010. Jack's in a halfway house, having served half of the 6 years he was sentenced to. He's a free man come December. Grover Norquist is president of the taxpayer advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. Ralph Reed lost his bid for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Some said he wanted to use this office as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate or even the White House. He continues to plot ways to return to the halls of power.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


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