Docs in Sight: This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, directed by Alex Gibney (2010)

Many Americans know—or at least have a hunch—that the corridors of power on Capitol Hill are rife with shenanigans that would make even a Wall Street broker blush. I’m not referring to the Tea Party-tinged “big government” obsession that borders on a mental condition or the conspiracy theories of people that over-watch 24 or listen to too much Alex Jones. I’m talking about something more intrinsic to our government system and something that Alex Gibney portrays a slice of in the new documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Here we have the story of Jack Abramoff who, lest we forget, was a character who suddenly appeared out of the shadows in 2004. Where he once stood atop the pyramid of corruption—a.k.a. the K Street lobbies—Abramoff then experienced a grand, drawn-out unraveling that eventually took down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and jailed former Representative Bob Ney.

Many might remember passing news pieces or Daily Show bits about Abramoff, who played the part by sporting a sinister-looking black fedora during the beginning of the end of Bush II. But in Gibney’s crime drama-like unpacking of a spaghetti ball of a story, Abramoff’s story not only implicates the free market ideologues who have plagued American politics for much of the last three decades but it also sheds much-needed light on the realpolitik of legislative sausage-making in Congress.

Some of the most entertaining and disturbing segments in the film reveal a side of Reagan-era anticommunism that shows how Abramoff was close to the likes of Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed when he was one of the “revolutionary” college Republicans energized by the 1980 election of Reagan. One particularly bizarre segment shows clips of a hilariously bad anticommunist action film starring Dolph Lundgren that Abramoff at one point produced. The Rove-Norquist-Reed-Abramoff axis ends up—surprise, surprise—pulling the strings of George W. Bush. But it’s the relationship between a born-again Christian, the House Majority Speaker Tom Delay, and an Orthodox Jew, Abramoff, that provides the backbone of the story. Fueled by an unwavering dedication to “free market” ideology, both tried to cash in on legislation that protected sweatshops in the Mariana Islands (“a petri dish for pure capitalism” Abramoff calls the place). And both soon got tied into American casino money that led to the Great Unraveling.

Gibney manages to keep a largely talking head-laden film vibrant by using popular songs, innovative graphics, a creative usage of film footage, and, above all, a clear narration that presents the story of an unfolding and unbelievable caper that pervaded some of the most powerful offices of U.S. governance. Yet the DeLay/Abramoff relationship was only the most high-profile case: Abramoff-connected money went to 210 members of Congress. Special interest lobbying is a perennial problem for a functioning democracy but these days over $3 billion a year is spent on hiring lobbyists to influence the political system in the U.S. And earlier this year the Supreme Court lifted a ban on political spending by corporations in candidate elections, thereby opening the floodgates wide. So, if we think that the conditions that gave rise to the machinations of a Jack Abramoff were bad, the future looks even worse.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money opened May 7.


Williams Cole


MAY 2010

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