Alex Gibney once again puts institutional corruption in his nonfiction crosshairs with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, an exhaustive investigation into convicted Beltway lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Gibney’s tactics don’t stray far from either his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room or Taxi to the Darkside, the director piling on news reports, talking-head opinions and anecdotes, archival audio and video footage, and dramatic recreations to create a virtual wall of information. Unlike Michael Moore, Gibney’s factoid barrage isn’t stitched together with dubious juxtapositions and debatable assumptions, his material assembled in a generally straightforward chronological manner that makes plain the means by which his story’s myriad puzzle pieces fit.
This isn’t to imply directorial objectivity; Casino Jack makes plain, from the outset, its position as an exposé-cum-condemnation of our political system as inherently flawed with regard to the relationship between lobbyists, politicians, and policy. Yet Gibney is less a polemicist or radical quack than a cinematic reporter, the depth of his Abramoff censure not bolstered by a partisan agenda, but by a fundamental disgust with the sheer magnitude of the man’s crimes, and the way those misdeeds are now endemic to our nation’s democratic process.
Nonetheless, the thoroughness of Casino Jack is both its finest and most frustrating aspect. Gibney goes to immense lengths to contextualize Abramoff’s greedy misconduct by explicating his early-‘80s rise to leadership in the College Republicans alongside Ralph Reed and Grover Nordquist, his fondness for action movies, and his orthodox Jewish faith and conservative values, all of which conspired to make him a fanatical, idealism-driven advocate for free market capitalism. Gibney astutely links Abramoff’s crazy support of Angolan dictator Jonas Savimbi (and his image as a freedom fighter) with his producer’s role in the art-reimagines-life Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion. However, more compelling about the Abramoff background material is a sense that the bright, charismatic, and persuasive lobbyist viewed himself as both a rebel and an inside man, a warrior battling against unfair regulatory forces and a cozy chum to the powers that be, most notably deregulation hero Tom DeLay. As it wends its way through Abramoff’s upstart years to his formidable work on Capitol Hill stealing money from and/or funneling money through Saipan sweatshops, Indian casinos, gambling cruise ships (a plot that seemingly led to a Mafia execution), shady Russian conglomerates, and other assorted dubious ventures, the film forcefully positions Abramoff as the embodiment of the very thing he championed: unchecked market forces at work.
Still, if Casino Jack‘s no-stone-left-unturned approach results in a convincing case against our current pay-to-pay political paradigm, in which special interests barter campaign cash for favors, it does so in such a detail-oriented manner that, at 122 minutes, the doc occasionally bogs down in its own minutia. Gibney’s desire to make his case airtight is vitally necessary, and yet from a cinematic standpoint, his film is so overstuffed with characters, commentators, theories, and clandestine operations—which he rightly links to Abramoff’s, and ‘80s College Republicans’, consuming spy novel paranoia—that it often fails to generate the momentum it seeks.
Despite his critical use of montage, the documentarian loses sight of pacing, his work slightly dragging through a third-act rife with Abramoff lies to a Native American Lt. Governor, his idiotic decision to explicitly discuss his criminal deals with partner Michael Scanlon over email, and the collapse of his schemes and those ensnared within them. Damning as it is, Casino Jack would benefit from more concision; as it stands, it sometimes plays a tad too much like the cinematic equivalent of a filing cabinet chockablock with a journalist’s well-organized notes.