Documentary examines the great Abramoff rip-offs

Posted: May 21, 2010

If money is power, and power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and money is the root of all evil, then Alex Gibney's documentary about the superlobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff illustrates these cautionary koans with alarming, and damning, detail.

A twisting tale of ambition, greed and hypocrisy, of moral lassitude and bold-faced chicanery, Casino Jack and the United States of Money focuses on the chameleonlike Abramoff, a charismatic mover and shaker who shook down American Indian tribes, Asian clothing factory owners and members of Congress, pocketing millions in the process.

Convicted on three criminal counts in 2006, Abramoff is the star in absentia of Gibney's movie. The Atlantic City-born Abramoff is seen in TV interviews, news footage, and old high school and college photos. His e-mail texts type out across the screen, and there's even a clip from the gung-ho action pic that Abramoff produced - the 1989 Dolph Lundgrun espionage shoot-'em-up Red Scorpion.

But Abramoff, doing time in a federal prison, was unable, or unwilling, to be interviewed by Gibney, winner of the 2009 documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side. Instead, it is left to the likes of deposed House majority leader Tom DeLay and former Republican congressman Bob Ney to explain themselves, and their alliances with Abramoff.

As entertaining as it is exasperating, Casino Jack begins like an outtake from Brian DePalma's Scarface, with a real-life mob hit in Miami. From there, the action shifts to college campuses and political conventions, from Louisiana casinos to sweatshops in the Northern Mariana Islands to conservative think tanks in D.C. The thread can be difficult to track, but the connections all lead back to one man.

Abramoff, however, is not a lone rogue. Casino Jack is designed as an indictment of a whole culture of influence peddling, a Beltway way of life where a pat on the back often comes with a kickback. Where a feverish quest for campaign contributions results in favoritism and phony rhetoric. Where a select few get rich at the expense of the public at large, and where lobbyists operate, as one of Gibney's talking heads puts it, in "a system of legalized bribery."


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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