Unlike most political scandals, the story of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s downfall does not instantly cry out for cinematic treatment. Involving a dense web of questionable transactions in which money was traded for influence and votes exchanged for money, Abramoff’s dirty dealings would seem to be more the stuff of headache-inducing follow-the-dough flowcharts than juicy thrillers about the corruption at the heart of the American political system. At the beginning of Alex Gibney’s documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a film released earlier this year and whose visuals include no shortage of flowcharts, the director displays an email sent to him by Abramoff about participation in his film, chiding him for making a dull documentary and suggesting that Gibney would be better off shooting an action film. (Abramoff, a lifelong film buff, produced two such movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.) Gibney, though, sticks to a fact-based approach, outlining dozens of complex transactions and odd bits of information, spicing up the material only through his trademark flash-heavy graphics and the occasional recreation.
While hardly an action film, George Hickenlooper’s current docudrama, the similarly titled Casino Jack is probably about as close as a movie that treats Abramoff’s decidedly unkinetic story is likely to get to the lobbyist’s preferred genre. (It at least features one lengthy scene in which one man tries to stab another to death with a ballpoint pen.) But if the documentary mode allows Gibney to build drama out of narrated facts, Hickenlooper and writer Norman Snider, who present almost all the same events (and most of the anecdotes) as their nonfiction counterpart, stake their film on character, an approach that quickly becomes problematic, particularly in regard to the treatment of their central figure.
Introduced delivering an angry monologue into a mirror following his morning ablutions, Kevin Spacey presents Abramoff as a violent man for whom the greatest enemy in life is mediocrity. “I will not allow my family to be slaves,” he shouts, asserting his belief in himself as an übermensch immune to the laws that apply to lesser creatures. But what’s also conveyed in this monologue is a sense of conviction, that Abramoff genuinely believes in the legitimacy of what he’s doing, that is, charging special interest groups enormous sums of money to curry favor with politicians and then making campaign donations to those same politicians. In another early sequence, Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, leads a congressional study group in which he equates the “God of Abraham” with the dictates of the free market. Despite the self-serving nature of the sermon, Hickenlooper gives us every reason to think that the lobbyist is a true believer in both forms of “religion,” showing Abramoff spending some of his early earnings (made protecting “free-market” sweatshops in U.S.-controlled Saipan) to finance the establishment of a private Hebrew school.
In contrast to his business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper in slick 25th Hour mode), who’s quick to lavish himself with expensive purchases and has a notable taste for women other than his wife, Abramoff is never presented as anything but a family man and always reinvests his earnings in new enterprises. Of course, as one of his victims puts it, the “son of a bitch is no good,” and for most of the movie we see Abramoff in full power-chasing mode, currying favor with politicians, delivering vicious outbursts, and playing his Native American casino-owning clients off against each other, all the while casting himself as the lead in an imaginary movie of his own creation—a metaphor that Snider’s script severely overworks. But the question remains: Is he the hero or the villain?
Casino Jack seems to want to have it both ways. In the interest of creating interesting cinema (and of driving home its thesis that Abramoff is not simply a rotten apple but typical of a rotten system), the film often asks us to have sympathy with the lobbyist, either accepting him as a genuine believer in the propriety of the Beltway system or admiring his occasional moral qualms which, by contrast, are pointedly absent from his co-conspirators. Eventually, Hickenlooper veers dangerously close to presenting him as a sacrificial victim, jailed for his crimes while the influential politicians he did business with remain unprosecuted. Lest this point be too subtle, the director stages a ludicrous fantasy courtroom sequence in which the accused Abramoff returns the moral contempt of his senatorial questioners, grilling them in turn about their own transgressions.
As the film goes on and Hickenlooper struggles to balance all his narrative threads (involving not only Abramoff’s myriad projects, but the activities of a good dozen associates, clients, and enemies), the film’s talking points come more and more to the fore. Whereas in Gibney’s film, the free play of documentary narration allowed facts and judgments to be casually related, in the docudrama, they must be awkwardly crammed in character’s mouths. In one final melodramatic confrontation between Abramoff and his wife Pam (Kelly Preston), made all the less resonant by the latter’s nearly complete lack of prior character development, Jack soaks in the tub while his wife questions him about his activity. “What the fuck do you think we do on K Street?” Abramoff angrily responds. “Everybody sells access.” “That doesn’t make it right,” counters his spouse, screaming out the film’s central argument in groan-inducing bullet fashion. Relenting, the lobbyist then admits, “Maybe you’re right, honey. I just got caught up in it.”
This last statement is an explanation that the film both does and doesn’t seem to believe. On one hand, Snider’s screenplay and Spacey’s obvious intelligence make it clear that Abramoff is far more than simply a pawn in the game. On the other hand, the film seems determined to make the lobbyist halfway redeemable, a questionable goal given the real-life damage the man wrought, no matter how much the system may have been to blame.
Ending on a note of vague optimism, the filmmakers conjure one final scene out of thin air that seems to seal the deal, fusing the aggressive, aggrandizing side of Abramoff’s personality with the other half that seems to believe he’s been put on Earth to do good. Crafting a letter from prison to a certain political VIP, Abramoff vows to expose all the Republican politicians who have benefited illegally from the lobbying system. Given the identity of the would-be epistle recipient, the film is apparently more than willing to exonerate Democrats from any wrongdoing, even though, as Gibney’s film points out, current Senate majority leader Harry Reid was among those Dems tainted by Abramoff’s doings. No one expects absolute fidelity to historical fact in a docudrama, but the more speculative moments in Hickenlooper’s film serve to inflect Abramoff’s character in a questionably positive, and occasionally incoherent, manner. Excepting some early scenes rife with dramatic momentum, a handful of super-sleek shots set against the ultramodern courtyard of the building where Abramoff plies his trade and a pair of gritty/funny lowlife supporting turns (by Jon Lovitz and the late Maury Chaykin), there’s little reason to prefer this film to Gibney’s more informative—and dramatically superior—documentary treatment of almost exactly the same material.