By Don Simpson | May 7, 2010
Director: Alex Gibney
Before Jack Abramoff became a highly influential and grossly corrupt Washington D.C. lobbyist for the Preston Gates & Ellis and Greenberg Traurig firms, he was the esteemed Chairman of the College Republican National Committee (1981-1985); and while Chairman, Abramoff is credited for making the College Republicans more activist and more conservative than ever before. It is also worth noting that Grover Norquist served as Abramoff’s executive director and Ralph Reed was hired as an unpaid intern – the infamous Abramoff-Norquist-Reed triumvirate was thus formed. Other highlights on Abramoff’s resume: in 1985, he joined Citizens for America, a pro-Reagan group that helped build support for the Nicaraguan Contras; he also tried his hands at far-right cinema – writing and producing the anti-communist diatribe Red Scorpion (starring Dolph Lundgren) which was released in 1989.
We all know something or other about Abramoff’s career as a lobbyist. Thanks to the “maverick” John McCain’s presidential campaign, we know that Abramoff conned wealthy Native American tribes while lobbying for legislation related to their casinos. Abramoff also developed an elaborate scheme concerning loopholes allowing sweatshop labor in the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI); he matched Tom DeLay (who later advanced to small-screen stardom via Dancing with the Stars) with the Executives of Naftasib (a Russian energy company) who needed DeLay’s support in making it possible for the IMF to bail out the Russian economy; he was hired by Tyco to lobby Congress and the White House on Tyco’s Bermuda tax-exempt status. The list goes on and on and on… And for each of his lobbying jobs, Abramoff funneled millions of dollars from his clients to the deep pockets of influential politicians. Abramoff personified the power of money in politics.
Alex Gibney’s documentary provides a very detailed look at Abramoff’s political history and grants us a pretty solid understanding of who Abramoff really is. Gibney interviews several of the key players in the Abramoff saga (many of whom were found guilty for their involvement with Abramoff) – and whomever he does not have access to interview (most notably Abramoff and DeLay) Gibney utilizes stock footage which is then able to aptly speak for itself. All of the talking heads are relatively upfront and frank with Gibney – which is where some of the most insightful information about Abramoff is revealed. I’m not typically a fan of talking head documentaries, but no other documentary film-making technique would have worked quite as well with this content.
The greatest takeaway from Casino Jack and the United States of Money concerns just how influential some lobbyists can be. They allow the corporations and individuals with the most money to have tremendous influence on politics in the United States. I don’t recall that Gibney ever makes reference to the evil “O” word (oligarchy); but Casino Jack and the United States of Money provides indisputable evidence that the Unites States is not a democracy or republic, it truly is an oligarchy. Thanks to loose campaign finance laws (made even more lax by the Supreme Court, supposedly in the name of “free speech”), money is able to get the financial elite’s choice crop of politicians elected; and thanks to the efforts of lobbyists, money is able to get the financial elite’s personal legislations passed. If you’re hoping for change, well…how do we change a government that even the elected governing bodies themselves have lost complete control of? One thing we should have all learned by now is that no matter how adamant a presidential candidate is about the subjects of campaign finance reform and curtailing the power of lobbyists, a politician is not going to bite the hands that are feeding them.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the first of two films about Abramoff to be released this year (George Hickenlooper’s bio-pic starring Kevin Spacey in scheduled for release in October 2010).