Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Even with all of the enthusiasm displayed during the 2008 presidential election, in which record numbers of voters turned out to cast a ballot, there remains a fundamental sense of cynicism about the ability to influence the political process.  Lobbyists on K Street seem to have far more power than individuals on Main Street, a feeling that was only reinforced when the Supreme Court recently ruled that the government may not restrict corporate spending in candidate elections.  This cynicism can, in some part, be tied to the actions of Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist who built a massive lobbying business, often by playing multiple parties against each other (especially Native American tribes campaigning for the right to build casinos).  Abramoff profited immensely from these endeavors, even while he was able to build a massive political war chest, issues explored in Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Gibney plays the Abramoff story with the right amount of humor and popular culture savvy, especially given Abramoff past history as a producer of highly conservative action films such as Red Scorpion, not to mention the sheer unreality behind Abramoff’s manipulations of the public trust, recalling Gibney’s earlier film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Like the Enron documentary, Gibney uses emails and phone calls that illustrate the sheer audacity of Abramoff’s behavior, with one email blithely remarking that “stupid people get wiped out,” in order to justify his actions.  This sense of entitlement is carefully rooted in Abramoff’s collegiate experiences as a member and leader of Republican organizations, where he met people like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, who all sought to make Republicans cool and even rebellious (in an Alex P. Keaton kind of way, I suppose).  But in all cases, Abramoff and his band of Republican crusaders show a sharp-eyed understanding of political theater (illustrated in part by Tom Delay cutting red tape from a Statue of Liberty) and a willingness to do virtually anything to win a campaign.

Although it is entertaining to point up these absurdities, especially when Abramoff is behind bars and Republicans are in the minority in Congress, Gibney is also careful to show the consequences of Abramoff’s actions, especially his work in campaigning for sweatshop owners in the Mariana Islands, where workers making well below minimum wage work to manufacture clothing, much of which bears a Made in the USA label because of the location’s status as a commonwealth in political union with the United States.  Because the workers, many of which were brought in from other countries, often couldn’t make a living wage, many turned to prostitution.  Others were forced to pay expensive fees to be relocated to the Mariana Islands, which were deducted from their paychecks, essentially making them indentured servants.

The film is a little ambiguous on what Abramoff represents.  Although Gibney shows clips of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to ask whether we were hopelessly naive back then or whether our political system itself is now rooted in a money-driven cynicism, the film stops short of investigating whether Abramoff was an exception or whether he is the most visible system of a more corrupt system.  A brief clip of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald calling campaign financing “legalized bribery” offers us one answer.  But the most explicit answer is tied to the film’s relationship with Participant Productions, which is using the film to promote activism around the issue of electoral reform. Casino Jack helps to spell out a confusing page in recent political history by looking at the Abramoff trial and by looking at the implications of lobbyists.  In places, however, the film seems too focused on tracing out individual pathology rather than looking at the issue of corruption more systemically.

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