Abramoff exploits eroding democracy in trenchant ‘Casino Jack’
Just in case you’re not outraged enough over the stranglehold by which corporate interests have crippled the American political process, along comes Casino Jack And The United States Of Money to make it all perfectly clear. Alex Gibney’s new documentary is densely packed with information, but persuasive and eye-opening; it charts the course of “uber-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, from ultra-conservative Young Republican with a James Bond complex in the Reagan ’80s to the most influential political power broker in America—and the disintegrating fabric of American democracy that permitted it to happen.
Veteran doc meister Gibney is no stranger to digging deep and getting the facts on his subjects. His previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The rise of Abramoff, he tells us at the outset, is “a story of personal corruption, and the story of what our democracy has become.”
It starts off with a literal bang, a gangland-style murder in Florida, and a Senate inquiry (conducted by Sen. John McCain) into Abramoff’s shady business dealings with Native American gambling casinos in Texas. What is not immediately apparent is how both incidents are tied to the same massive, tangled, Gordian knot of influence-peddling, election-fixing, contract-selling, legislation-killing pay-to-play political maneuvering that define Abramoff’s career among the DC power elite, a barely–hidden agenda whose long, slimy tentacles reach into the pockets of scores of Republicans (and a few Democrats) in Congress.
Abramoff grew up a movie-buff in L.A. (Gibney tells us he converted to Orthodox Judaism after seeing Fiddler On The Roof.) He became an “Orthodox conservative” in college as a member of Young Americans for Freedom, a group for whom Reagan Republicans weren’t conservative enough. Calling themselves “freedom fighters,” they affected combat fatigues, engaged in “guerrilla warfare,” devoured anti-Commie spy novels, and set out to overthrow the “old order” of Liberalism.
When Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, Abramoff and his cronies knew how to take advantage of the prevailing winds of change: anti-tax, anti-government crusaders, the rise of the religious right (via the Christian Coalition), and the wholesale embrace of the bottom-line business principle of trading corporate campaign financing for legislation (or “legalized bribery,” as one commentator puts it). To operate more efficiently in this brave new world, Abramoff found that he and Congressman Tom DeLay shared a common goal: to “exterminate government rules and regulations.” (Listed among the pesky controls DeLay sought to abolish are the Clean Air Act, HUD, the Department of Education, OSHA, the NEA, and the EPA.)
Abramoff gets rich selling access to DeLay, and the depredations wrought on American democracy by their alliance are appalling. In the Marianas, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific and a regulation-free “Neverland” where immigration, labor, and minimum wage laws do not apply, a “cash cow” is created in a garment factory whose workers are virtually enslaved. (One laborer begs a visiting American to buy his kidney so he can pay his debt and go home to China.) A money-laundering operation called a “think tank” is set up whose supposed CEO is a lifeguard buddy of Abramoff crony Mike Scanlon.
But it’s the his “gimme five” scam—selling protection to Native American tribal casinos, profits which are then funneled back to Abramoff via Scanlon’s bogus company—that finally brings Abramoff under legal scrutiny. (He even has the hubris to leave a damning trail of undeleted emails that rivals the Nixon Tapes for arrogant, gutter-mouthed, racist bravado.)
Filmmaker Gibney doesn’t paint Abramoff as a lone gunman-style villain (as tempting as that may be as we see Abramoff decked out in Reilly, Ace of Spies, black trenchcoat and fedora for his trial), but as the logical outgrowth of his era. As commentator Thomas Frank points out, “When you turn Capitalism loose without regulations, the Marianas is what you get.” Or, as another observer puts it, “Abramoff couldn’t have flourished if the system itself were not corrupt.”
CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY ★★★
With Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay. Written and directed by Alex Gibney. A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated R. 120 minutes.
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