Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

Film #9: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

Man, if it’s not a horror movie, it’s a documentary, right? I promise that eventually I’ll expand the scope of films that I review, but lately I seem to either want to scare myself or learn something. Casino Jack and the United States of Money gave me an opportunity to do the latter. This 2010 documentary by director Alex Gibney (who’s also made documentaries about Enron and Eliot Spitzer) focuses on super lobbyist and all-around scumbag Jack Abramoff. In 2006, Abramoff was convicted of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion, and his conviction brought down several other government officials, including Representative Bob Ney. Ney contributes interviews for the film, as do loads of other politicians and Washington insiders – pretty much everyone except for the man himself. The film covers the rise and fall of Abramoff in the Washington scene, and how he lobbied for various corporations by wooing members of Congress with trips to Scotland, VIP treatment at his restaurant, and of course, good ole fashioned cash.

Stylistically and as a piece of art, there’s not too much to say about this film. It’s pretty standard as far as political documentaries go. We get interviews with people who were involved in the scandals, archival clips that give us quaint comparisons to how things supposedly worked in the past, and ironic music accompanying footage of dastardly deeds. There’s nothing wrong with taking the tried and true method as long as you succeed in the end. As far as informing the viewer about Jack and his deeds, Casino Jack does succeed – one might even argue that it succeeds at that too much, since at times the documentary feels like information overload. More disappointing, however, is the film’s failure to satisfyingly make the jump from specific to general, the way truly good essays and documentaries do. It should have been able to use a very narrow subject (Mr. Abramoff) to make a statement about a much broader one (lobbyists and money in politics, a timely topic nowadays thanks in no small part to the Occupy Wall Street protests). It never really does, though, and while it’s good to know the details surrounding Jack Abramoff’s crimes, the final result is a feeling of missed opportunity.

If you’re looking for something to get you pissed about politics, though, you’ve found a gem in Gibney’s film. It reveals a full-on procession of hypocrisy and swindling, with Abramoff the criminal cross-bearer. The section on Saipan really stuck out to me as a sickening display of greed and American exceptionalism. Here you have members of Congress traveling to this North Mariana island, an American commonwealth, to investigate working conditions in factories. Abramoff brought many members of our government out there, but all they did was give a cursory glance, declare that everything was a-okay, and use the rest of their time to have a tropical vacation. It wasn’t until Representative George Miller went there afterward that anyone even bothered to talk to a single worker.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a perfunctory political documentary, giving an in-depth examination of Jack Abramoff and his time influencing members of our government, but never doing much to go beyond this very narrow scope of interest.

Final rating: 6.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • It baffles me that politicians are okay signing their name to a pledge circulated by Grover Norquist – I wouldn’t even want to be a known associate of his after seeing him in this film.
  • In addition to the Saipan segment, those emails belittling American Indians were also hard to stomach. Some people are just bad human beings.
  • Seems like most complaints about government waste and inefficient use of taxpayer money lead to conclusions that we need to cut spending, but I feel like maybe we should start with cutting out all the bribery bullshit before, say, education, and see where that leaves us first.
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2 responses

  1. danyulengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Alex Gibney Thursday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

    April 3, 2014 at 10:21 am

  2. Pingback: Alex Gibney Documentaries Thursday – Watch: ‘Casino Jack and The United States of Money’ (2010) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

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